Here is a film that challenges the viewer to question gay and straight culture while enveloping the feelings of first love as told by a young boy in the Philippines. Auraeus Solito directed this 2005 light-hearted drama which quickly became a contender in film festivals worldwide, becoming the official Philippine entry for Best Foreign Film in the 79th Academy Awards. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll question your own childhood and wonder about what defines gender: Society or You.

Maximo, or “Maxi” as he is usually called (played by the charming Nathan Lopez), is a bright 12-year-old boy who loves his father and two older brothers (The jaded patriarch played by Soliman Cruz with older tough brother Boy (Neil Ryan Sese) and caring-but-equally-tough middle brother Bogs (Ping Medina). Their mother had passed away due to unforeseen circumstances rendering Maxi to take up the cooking and cleaning, along with a bit of the family business on the side: Gambling and racketeering. Unfortunately early into the movie we observe that Maxi had to drop out of school in order to keep the household running efficiently while his father and two brothers make the bulk of the family’s income. Maxi is a bright and lovable child with exuberant style, you find yourself cheering for him rather than thinking his personality is merely a “phase”. There is a wiggle in his confident stride that would make even the most confident of fashionistas jealous. Suddenly an incident within the safety of his neighborhood has Maxi saved by a new police officer Victor Perez (The handsome J.R. Valentin). Maxi is infatuated at first, showing signs of puppy love, then notions of an adult love as he follows Victor and gets to know him more. Soon there is disorder as Maxi slowly sheds his effeminate persona to please Victor, who may or may not return a young boy’s feelings, but also among the neighborhood and the police. How will this story be resolved? Lopez’s portrayal of Maxi tugs at the heart strings but not so much that he overacts culminating into one of the finest portrayals a pre-teen has done, gay or not. Valentin, Cruz, Sese, and Medina make up the rest of the major male cast, each one with a scene that isn’t wasted. Look closely at their facial expressions, conflicted yet thoughtful. They are the supporting structures in helping Lopez’s acting transcend expectations of critics.

The movie opens to drab scenery of the Philippine slums. To write that I felt like I was twisting my arm–partially because many critics of the movie start off describing Maxi’s home as such–although the story takes place in the dark side of local dwellings the story simply would not have worked if the scenery was cleancut and urbanized. The poor neighborhood Maxi and his family lives can very well be a character contributing to the story and to Maxi’s development. His neighbors are accepting of him because he is a good boy and his family helps people out in the community, plain and simple. What little space is shown on screen amplifies the love and caring for one another; the neighbors may argue but there is a level of harmony that keeps everyone together and Maxi is a part of that. As the first few minutes open, a patriotic song about the Philippines plays, contrasting to the depressing state of living. But… is everyone sad? Do they protest against the squalor of their situation? Nay, they work and continue life; there’s no indication of someone wanting more than what he already has.

A subtle feature that stood out to me in the beginning were flowers. There are purple orchids floating around with one eventually being picked up by Maxi on his way home. He tucks an orchid behind his ear as an accessory and goes on his way home eventually placing on his mother’s altar. Orchids symbolize virility and is seen as a euphemism for human genitalia. For Maxi to pick up that flower, what gender is he identifying with? Quickly there is a shot of a woman stringing sampaguita or Arabian jasmine for garlands. The sampaguita is the national flower of the Philippines and due to it being shown in the opening, can connect to national identity. This is a Filipino film. The last flower shown is that of a red rose tattooed on a woman’s back as observed by Maxi. “Love” is what is represented through red roses. Could the flowers shown be the foreshadowing of Maxi’s “blossoming”?

A scene featuring the attempted rape/assault of Maxi was horrifying to watch bringing me to wonder: Is wearing female garments to blame for provoking the two men? Or is it the morbid curiosity of what a child’s body would look like when he is not dressed in the correct gender derived from his anatomy (“Let’s see if it is smooth down there.”). Could it be a hate crime and their main purpose was to traumatize Maxi into becoming a “man” because girls are vulnerable and have it worse off than boys? The debate is endless but that scene scared and enraptured my attention. The argument on whether or not Maxi’s clothes provoked the men echoes “SlutWalk” held in recent years globally in which women protest against excusing rape by referring to a woman’s appearance. Maxi should not have to hide his flamboyant personality among his accepting neighbors, especially during an impressionable time going through puberty but if his clothes determine if he would be assaulted or not challenges the question of his identity.

Throughout the film there is a melodic chord of guitar strings strumming. According to IMDB the composer of the film score is the bedraggled man playing piano on the first floor of the buildings. The chords sound like a naked electric guitar without an amplifier, at first causing me to cringe but as time progressed, I tolerated and found the guitar strumming a welcoming part of the simple soundtrack. Then it struck me that the music helped me zone in on the film better; had there be a flourishing soundtrack my mind wouldn’t focus on Maxi causing the story to flounder. On another note, this could be used as a parallel to gay culture; it could be different at first but is accepted. Or the guitar is Maxi, with strong sound and resonance but needs someone to amplify him (I make terrible puns) and in this movie he finds that in Victor.

The credits to this movie is cutely written on notebook paper, each with hand-drawn pictures accompanying each namecard. The change from official fonts and a severe namecard, the end credits are written in colored pencils, evoking the child in ourselves. Are we blossoming? Are we questioning our childhood filled with exploration and first loves? The full credits reveal a private and candid epilogue to the film with Maxi folding his mother’s dress and his father’s shirt together and placing the items in a box, a befitting metaphor to moving on in life. Solito has outdone himself and I can’t wait to watch more films by him! Oh Maxi, you’re such an inspiration!

This review has been a result of viewing and writing for ASAN 491G: Topics in Asia: Asia (Cinema of Southeast Asia) taught by Professor Paul Rausch of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.