Women” and “power” rarely form a sentence that doesn’t draw prejudice. Yet, in Joyce Bernal’s latest Everything About Her, these two words become the foundation of a rather unconventional statement. The film opens with a montage of Vilma Santos’ magnate delivering a speech that’s stereotypical of women in power—irascible, frigid, and almost always looking daggers. She goes onto her speech, discussing the hurdles women face in pursuit of success. Her audience react pryingly, taken aback by her shtick and clearly not taking at heart the lessons from her speaking. The sequence then intercuts to a scene in which Santos’ real estate mogul gives a hand to homeless kids, juxtaposing her firm, hard-edged exterior from just a few moments before. Five minutes into the film, Bernal establishes her thesis and around it she builds her story.
The film is driven by irony: Vivian (Santos) later finds out she’s afflicted with cancer. Instead of wallowing about it, she accepts it like no other’s business, hires a private nurse, and maniacally, laughs it off—all with enviable and self-confidence and awareness. She’s a strong woman, after all. She’s going to win. Where she drains her strength is on her estranged son, Albert (Xian Lim) who, after many years flies home for a high-tier real estate project for her company. Unbeknownst to her, her private nurse Jaica (Angel Locsin) has made Albert aware of the situation. There it is, a chance for her to rekindle an interrupted relationship with her son, never mind the irony of the timing.
Carl Papa’s Manang Biring similarly finds itself in such an ironic situation, in which a cancer-stricken mother receives a letter from her estranged daughter saying that she’s coming home for Christmas. Trouble is, she might not even make it ‘till that day. This thick, disquieting anxiety carries through a scene in Everything About Her, where Vivian mutters, almost weak-sounding: “Baka nga kailangan ko ng deadline,” she confesses. “Sana lang wag masyadong mabilis.” It’s a great scene, one that requires an actor of Santos’ pedigree to pull off. You take everything Santos says and you’re always sold on her sincerity. A few sequences earlier she speaks of spilling someone’s guts and ripping insides out, and you believe her just the same.
Onward the film goes, as the whole lot builds up to a waltz between Vivian and Jaica and their individual struggles. The latter grows mad at her mother who chooses to leave them in order to work overseas; the former is anxious to reunite with Albert whom she lost in a years-ago custody battle, the primary reason being that she isn’t always around him for doing much work. Through this Bernal subtly touches on the idea of women working hard on their careers, an act which is easily misconstrued as selfish. Mothers working aside for their family—women putting in the work for successful careers—is an idea too alien, too foreign. It isn’t selfless. And if one word completely surmises motherhood, it’s selflessness.
The dynamic between Vivian and Jaica is extremely watchable, owing mostly to both Santos and Locsin’s commendable performances. There’s an underplayed gag toward the end where Jaica persuades Albert to stay for his mother, mentioning something about Darna. “Ikaw si Ding,” she exclaims. “Siya si Darna, at ikaw ang bato.” It’s somewhat refreshing to see this in Everything About Her, however random. Punchlines are echoed as poignant monologues, such as in the funny bit where Jaica missends a text message to Vivian, essentially calling her an “impakta”. It’s flourishes like this that pepper the middlebrow story that it has.
Speeches bookend Everything About Her. On a syrupy, frankly shoehorned resolution, a final speech is made, Vivian completely renewed and on her face a wide smile. She speaks of life and all its beautiful things, and asks her similarly refreshed audience that let this be the way everyone remembers her. You don’t question the change of heart, but are quite unsure and still curious what drives it—did prejudice win, or did humility? The film closes irresolute.