I America, the new film from Ivan Payawal, is by no means a completely redemptive work. It is, instead, a hand-holding piece that argues the unfortunate failure of last year’s The Comeback is merely an unfortunate setback. And with his new film, the young director, at the very least, makes a somewhat compelling case.
This is, in large part, due to the amassed talent Payawal has at his employ: Carlo Mendoza, who, in his beautiful lensing of the film, reaffirms his mastery of color, aided this time by colorist Marilen Magsaysayㅡa feat which he had already showcased in Chito S. Roño’s Boy Golden. Two visually key moments happen midway in the film: one immediately after a pompous supper in which half-American Erica (Bella Padilla) confronts her father, John (Rob Rownd), upon learning the existence of a stepsister, which, her father asks her to help him find; and another that involves Erica’s mother (Elizabeth Oropesa), who, for the only minute she’s sober in the film, assures her daughter that John isn’t her real father. And there, the glum color of the former scene and the shaky camerawork of the latter, along with everything else in the filmㅡthe actors, the writing, and the directionㅡmake perfect sense, reinforcing the conflict in which Erica is caught at the center of. On and despite all of this chaos, Nonong Buencamino’s score impresses so gracefully.
To make smart utility of such talent shows if nothing else, promise. However, seeing I America plagued by the same problems as Payawal’s previous film, doesn’t empower said promise. There’s an almost active melding of the poignant with the frolic, which vexes more than it endears. One dreadful scene happens at a funeral, which the film so indulgently drags in favor of romp. On one edge of the screen are people mourning, and on the other, you see people tiptoeing comically on top of graves in what looks like a sad attempt to be cast in an unusually morbid John Waters movie. Now, I’m certain this is done for effect, but of what effect exactly, I’m at a complete loss. It’s possibly one of the most painful, perplexing, and painfully perplexing scenes I’ve seen in a long while.
The script, which Payawal also writes, shifts from one form to another, and renders Erica’s inner turmoils confusing and less defined. At one point, the film makes the impression that it tells a story of literally rediscovering one’s true self, with Erica learning that her last name is ‘Perry’ instead of ‘Berry’, but then it swivels to an arc motivated by guilt, and then to some other side arcs that add little weight to the central conflict. These hiccups make for a dizzying, most clamorous panorama, the way Payawal plays his film out. The idea that an error as careless as giving a fatherless child a false last name as common an occurrence for Americians is pregnant with possibilities, and I had hoped that Payawal stayed on this course and hadn’t whirled so haphazardly to side arcs that ultimately bloat an otherwise lean story of self-rediscovery.
Small blotches of hilarity occasionally transpire through the otherwise wholly garish comedy, and it is oddly in these moments that Padilla, ever the able player, is given time to shine. Crippled as she may be by weak script-work, she delivers a performance that showcases intensity and restraint. You believe her as she speaks the last words in the film, which perfectly wrap a story of a young half-American’s losing and finding again her true self. To say that those words, however, wrap this story is barely accurate, for no matter how far this plays from the failure that is The Comeback, nor how game Payawal and his team players are, the supposed loss and rediscovery in I America do not convince. You leave the film flummoxed more than you’re enlightened.