A pleasant and polished first feature for director Gene Cajayon, “The Debut” might seem too much the generic teenpic if it were not for its funneling familiar themes through a fresh, second-generation Filipino-American p.o.v. Superficially, pic has much in common with recent Sundance preem “The Flip Side.” But while “Flip” scrutinizes generation/culture gaps in satirical, no-budget indie form, “Debut” does the same via more conventionally seriocomic, commercially angled means. Formulaic but satisfying effort could do nicely connecting with its underserved target demo, given careful city-by-city marketing, in a four-wall release plan that kicked off March 16 in San Francisco.
Closely following a teen-movie blueprint established by “Sixteen Candles,” pic traces one long day in the life of Ben (Dante Basco), a suburban California high school senior who’s smart, talented, hardworking and college-bound. But he feels harassed, especially since he’s just paid in secret for his first semester at an arts school — a move sure to enrage dour father Roland (Tirso Cruz III), who expects him to go pre-med at UCLA.
Ben isn’t at all enthused about tonight’s long-planned family extravaganza: A rented-hall coming out party for sister Rose (Bernadette Balagtas). The bash is clearly postman Roland’s attempt to prove he’s not a failure in the eyes of his own harshly judgmental father, Lolo (Eddie Garcia), who’s flown in from Manila.
Ben makes a reluctant appearance, intending to split ASAP with best buds Doug (Jason Schaal) and Rick (Brandon Martin). But latter duo are quite delighted by the trad Filipino food, dance and music on tap. After initial embarrassment, Ben has to admit it’s all pretty cool, too.
Even more seductive is his chemistry with Rose’s previously unmet pal Annabelle (Gina Alajar). She’s definitely dateable — at least she thinks so. Begging to differ is jealous ex-b.f. Augusto (Darion Basco), an ill-tempered gangbanger who’s Ben’s distant cousin — and who has brought his posse, not to mention a handgun, to this family affair.
There are no real surprises here, as screenplay efficiently pilots various narrative strands toward predictable conflict resolution. Major developments abound: A new girlfriend, heightened cultural self-awareness, improved family relations, heroic faceoff with bully — all in 18 hours or less, natch. Ah well: C’est la teenpic.
In general, however, “The Debut” soft pedals its formulaic nature via confident pacing, relaxed humor, and an unwillingness to caricature even the most foible-laden characters. Drawing on both youthful Stateside talent and Philippines entertainment vets, strong ensemble cast contribs turns that are colorful but always credible.
Later reels make room for some welcome showmanship, as Rose and friends (in fact two established offscreen performance ensembles, Kayamanan Ng Lahi and Kaba Modern) execute dances both trad-Filipino and hip-hop-style for the assembled guests.
Voice synchage seems a little off during musical segs; otherwise indie prod is slickly handled on all design and tech levels. Soundtrack features multinational Filipino-heritage artists in a variety of musical genres. Should one doubt “The Debut” was a community labor of love, pic ends with the longest thank you scroll in recent memory.