Feelings aren't enough

October 25, 2019 – Bjorn Abraham Tabanera

Last year, Black Sheep paired Maja Salvador and Zanjoe Marudo in To Love Some Buddy. This year, they released two movies patterned after the same gimmick — Between Maybes starring Julia Barreto and Gerald Anderson and Open headlined by Arci Munoz and JC Santos. 

Given how our country puts love teams on glorified pedestals, ABS-CBN’s Isa Pa With Feelings showcases, once again, how they’re capable of successfully toying with unpredictable leads and novel narrative components. 

That said, it’s understandable why Direk Prime Cruz’s newest film is surrounded by positive reviews. Maine Mendoza is a distinct pop culture enchantress and Carlo Aquino is a tested actor whose charisma warrants your gaze. To add to the mix, half of the story revolves around the perspective and pains of a deaf character — an element that hasn’t been fully explored by local filmmakers today. What’s more, it helps that both actors effortlessly curate a charming tale and a tank full of feels. But as with the reality of life and the limits of cinema, charm can only go so far and feelings are never enough.

A Little Too Much Privilege

One of the story’s problems is its inability to substantiate the costly spontaneity of Mara and Gali, Maine’s and Carlo’s characters, respectively. Although the film does show a slice of Mara’s monetary footing, viewers are left to wonder how Gali affords a cozy condominium unit, a four-door sedan, and the capacity to conveniently take up dancing lessons minus the stress that’s bundled with working-class obligations. The movie does show him teaching sign language lessons and volunteering to educate deaf-mute children, but you can already tell these gigs don’t pay for the lifestyle he leads. 

Clearly, there is nothing innately wrong with being rich, but it’s hard to dismiss these details considering our pressing economic imbalance, if not decline. A clearer rationale behind his financial threshold would’ve held that aspect in place much better. As a result, there are parts of the movie where the main characters feel like slaves to the plot as opposed to them being natural, free-spirited mavericks. For instance, in one scene, Gali takes Mara to a pet store and, on the spot, surprises to buy her a goldfish. Let it be known that, at this point, Mara is ill-equipped with the goods to nurture an aquatic pet. On an earlier occasion, she accidentally crashes the back of her car into the side of his, but he easily lets her off the hook as long as she agrees to be his dancing partner. 

These aren’t impossible scenarios, yes. But these moments are too grand to pass off as realistic. It is high time for filmmakers to give precedence to social contexts. At the heart of it all, issues of disability will always cross matters involving social classes, and we can’t afford not to factor that in.  

Equally questionable is Gali’s absence of a familial backstory. It isn’t quite laid out why a man of his caliber and kind would be left to his own devices. Interestingly, the same thing can be said about Enrique Gil’s character in another Black Sheep release earlier this year. In Alone / Together, Raf, too, is deprived of a domestic background and cinema-goers are forced to accept his one-dimensional persona. It is difficult to fully root for a lead character whose family backdrop you don’t quite get a picture of. This is precisely why it’s important to put a premium on bits like these; because they humanize fictional personalities and make them earn, without shortcuts, the empathy of viewers.   

Big Winning Moments

On the flip side, what Isa Pa With Feelings does right the most is its propensity to depict Gali’s perspective. The film is most visceral when it attempts to illustrate how he makes of what happens around him. In the absence of comprehensible audio, the movie, very cinematically, paints how the deaf community processes social interactions and relationships. 

Cruz and his team do a stellar job in representing a community that hasn’t been featured all that much in recent, mainstream Philippine cinema. As a whole, the film is respectful, immersive, and helps initiate conversations about how else we can better engage with our deaf brothers and sisters. 

Moreover, it is only right to applaud Cruz for helping Maine unearth a side of her the audience hasn’t witnessed yet. While the Eat Bulaga mainstay is comfortably positioned in the funny side of the entertainment business, the movie shows us her potential to confidently take on more gut-wrenching acting projects, too. 

Carlo, on the other hand, impresses once again in his second Black Sheep feature (the first one was Exes Baggage). Despite a stunning lack of speaking lines, he effectively conveys Gali’s emotions and communicates them the best way an actor ever could. 

Storyline Spiral

One of the more noticeable faults the film carries is the gradual descent of Mara’s storyline. Considering how the movie begins with her overt determination to ace a board exam, her personal narrative drifts into oblivion as the movie progresses. Towards the second half of the flick up until its end, she simply becomes an accessory to the chronicles of Gali. Her deaf niece shares the same fate. Introduced early on, we meet the little daughter of Mara’s sister—the very reason why Mara takes sign language lessons in the first place. As if only to supplement the lead characters’ formal, infatuating introduction—because, alas, Gali is Mara’s teacher for the course—her niece never reappears.  

Overall, it’s an adorable tale about the thrills of meeting someone new and forging a connection with them. Never mind the excessively contrived encounters and that one distasteful kiss joke Gali tries to pull on Mara after doing her a favor during the film’s first half. Everything else is fluffy and fetching. Fairly enough, Isa Pa With Feelings is a string of good ideas that could have been better had they taken more time to flesh out a tighter narrative. To say that this movie was bad would be unfair, but to say that it is good would be overpromising. At best, it is a noble attempt to deliver something refreshing and sincere to cinephiles.

To put oddly, if there were an afterlife for movies, Isa Pa With Feelings wouldn’t rest in The Good Place nor would it end up in The Bad. A Medium Place would do.

Bjorn is a graduate studies student of film at UP Diliman. He enjoys dancing, likes poetry, and hopes to have abs by the beginning of next year.