The Debut Movie Review
Looking past the frequently rudimentary filmmaking and the rather stale plot of Americanized kids struggling against the old world values of their immigrant parents, "The Debut" has at its heart a strong cast of actors giving their all to earn a resounding ring of truth with the movie's target audience.
The story of a Filipino-American teenager determined to go to art school despite his father's insistence that he become a doctor, the movie touches on many of the conflicts such minorities face in sometimes hermetic ethnic social circles.
Ben Mercado (Danté Basco) clashes constantly with his hard-headed father (Tirso Cruz III), who demands, accusingly, "What the hell are you going to do with a degree in cartoons?" Dad has never stopped to consider his son's talent -- which the movie implies Ben has a lot of, although it's not until the last scene in the movie that we see any of his work.
He takes heat elsewhere too, for his nearly complete disinterest in his culture and heritage. "You think you're cool 'cause you hang around with white boys," his sister complains. "But you're just as brown as the rest of us."
Both Ben's apathy to his roots and his commitment to pursuing his dream are tested as tension builds on various fronts during his sister's elaborate 18th birthday party, for which their parents have rented out a hall and invited even distant relatives the kids hardly remember.
Ben, who would rather be at a kegger across town chatting up a pretty blonde who has been flirting with him at school, finds himself embarrassed by his sister who shows him up, having learned some native Tagalog to impress their grandfather. He's also frustrated by his father, who announces at the party that his son will be going to medical school, and threatened by a gang-banging cousin (Danté's brother Darion) who doesn't like the way Ben looks at his ex-girlfriend (who is Ben's sister's best friend).
"The Debut" isn't very weighty, but first-time director Gene Cajayon finds emotional veracity in even the most contrived of circumstances. He has a talent for inserting depth-defining details (Ben sells his comic book collection to pay his own tuition to CalArts) without letting the film get bogged down in the minutiae of the unavoidable clichés (like Ben's bellicose "it's my life" disagreements with his father).
The inevitable gang element hovers threateningly over several scenes, but Cajayon is smart enough to not open that can of worms either. Instead he spends time on Ben's authentically awkward flirtation with Annabelle (Joy Bisco), the girl with the possessive ex.
Such moments are really brought to life by the sincere performances, which more than anything else lift "The Debut" above its Filmmaking 101 fabrication. Basco and most of the cast (many of whom are other Bascos and/or experienced actors famous in the Filipino community) invoke an almost instant attachment to their characters. Sympathy even develops for the father, who we discover has an equally contemptuous relationship with his own pop that eventually leads to a better understanding with Ben.
Most of these developments are obvious, but Cajayon seems aware of when "The Debut" is edging toward the unoriginal and never lets it get trite.
The only time the director really falters is when he tries to cram incidental racism issues into the story. These attempts are either elbow-in-the-ribs satire -- one character has a funny theory about how "the man" abets the young Asians' obsession with souped up Hondas to keep them down -- or absurdly forced. "I never ate a dog," giggles a condescending white girl in her only scene. "All those Asians do it...You chink!"
The rest of the time, "The Debut" is a warm, appealing and meaningful effort that both respects tradition and earnestly characterizes the difficult cultural fusion faced by frustrated children of fiercely dogmatic immigrant parents.