A day in the life of a foster family preparing to say goodbye to the boy they’ve raised is the simple premise behind “Foster Child,” Brillante Mendoza’s fourth and most mature work. Shot partly in real time in the slums of Manila, the pic has considerably more texture than Mendoza’s earlier digital efforts, exhibiting a fine sense of control along with a sophisticated use of space. Fests will be sure to adopt this worthy slice of cinema verite.
Morning comes early for the Manlangqui family as they busily but good-naturedly ready themselves for the coming day. As Dad (Dan Alvaro) prepares to go to work, Mom Thelma (Cherry Pie Picache) gets her teen sons Gerald (Alwyn Uytingco) and Yuri (Jiro Manio) all set while tending to 3-year-old foster child John-John (Kier Segundo). Though slum dwellers, the family is luckier than most, with a modest, split-level house that feels crowded but livable.
Also that morning, social worker Bianca (Eugene Domingo) moves through the slums, speaking with mothers and children with a warmhearted and solicitous breeziness. Once at Thelma’s, she confirms a meeting they’ll all have that evening with an American couple scheduled to adopt John-John. On her departure, Thelma takes John-John to preschool, then to the foster care agency where Bianca shows her the twins who will be her next charge.
Mendoza isn’t averse to throwing in a little propaganda for the cause, especially when a nun thanks Thelma and tells her (and auds) about the merits of the foster care program. Thelma is clearly one of their best contractors, with a shelf full of plaques proclaiming her as Foster Mother of the Year. She’s expressive, loving and playful, so it’s especially difficult when she and Yuri go to a fancy hotel downtown to hand John-John over to his new parents.
Structurally pared down to the essentials, pic’s focused, linear progression allows character and emotion to gently build without the unwieldy shifts Mendoza employed in earlier films. With a docu-like authenticity similar to his “The Teacher,” helmer has a feel for neorealism that’s proving to be his forte. Locations are genuine and skillfully used — not only the slums but the deluxe hotel that proves such an intimidating environment for the respectably impoverished Thelma.
Thesping is utterly convincing and natural, with both Picache (also in Mendoza’s “Summer Heat”) and Domingo appearing to live their parts rather than perform them. Lensing mimics a casual, observational eye, either quietly trailing characters or remaining fixed as action passes at various distances. Sound in the office scene is problematic, but otherwise, tech credits are strong, greatly benefiting from 35mm.