The Debut

The search for cultural identity, especially among second-generation immigrants is not new fodder for movies (An American Rhapsody is a very recent example). However, The Debut presents this familiar story from a fresh perspective, that of the Filipino culture. Ben Mercado (Dante Basco, Extreme Days, But I'm a Cheerleader) is an Americanized Filipino (or is that Pilipino?) readying himself for college. He has little knowledge about his heritage, preferring to hang out with white friends over Filipinos. He wants to become an artist, while his father wants him to become a doctor. Nothing new at all about this formula. What is new is what director/writer Gene Cajayon and co-writer John Manal Castro spent nearly a decade trying to put on screen.

The Debut alternates between a birthday party for Ben's sister Rose (Bernadette Balagtas, As Good As It Gets) and a party thrown by Ben's friends. These parties represent the split halves of Ben's life. One side is his family and culture. His sister's party is almost entirely Filipino. He cannot speak Tagalog and feels uncomfortable around them. He does not appreciate the customs, foods, and dances. The other side is his 'American' friends. They are predominantly white, and it is a place he feels secure. Throughout the night, Ben's choices as to what party he attends is also a self-awakening to who he truly is as a person. Not surprisingly, Ben's motivations are primarily that of lust. It is a girl that gets him to go to his friend's party, and it is a girl (Joy Bisco, Ghost World) that gets him to stay at Rose's. Once Rose satisfies familial obligations, the party turns into something of a melting pot, a mixture of American and Filipino cultures that signifies the world that Ben probably belongs in.

The movie later succumbs to the temptations of Hollywood, and throws in some melodramatic elements that serve only to ruin the emotional impact of Ben's identity crisis. The tone of the movie changes from one of introspection to that of predictability. Annabelle's (Bisco) ex is at the party, and he is jealous at the budding relationship between Annabelle and Ben. The Debut never quite recovers, moving a little clumsily towards its happy, yet ambiguous ending. Cajayon and Castro also begin to develop a subplot involving Ben's father Roland (Tirso Cruz III, Good Evening to Everybody) and grandfather (Eddie Garcia, Brother, Why Is There a Yesterday?) and its similarity to Roland and Ben's relationship, but fail to add depth and only hastily resolve things.

The actors are a mixture of new American actors and legendary Filipino ones. With the exception of an annoying party emcee, the cast is fun to watch. It is also fascinating to watch Filipino cultural dances and foods parade across the screen. Mercado is much better here than he was in Extreme Days, mainly because there is a lot of depth to his character (that, and looking at the credits it seems half his family was in the film). Cruz and Garcia are also good, but not on screen long enough to make any meaningful impact. There is a certain energy about The Debut that helps it overcome an otherwise ordinary base story, turning it into something to care about. It's a universal story that many can relate to, only told from a new perspective.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 34 minutes, English and Tagalog with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains language, should be a PG-13 or R.

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