The Debut (2000) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, mild violence and sexuality
Running Time: 88 min.
Cast: Dante Basco, Tirso Cruz III, Joy Bisco, Bernadette Balagtas, Jayson Schaal, Bradnon Martin, Gina Alajar, Darion Basco, Eddie Garcia, Dion Basco, Derek Basco
Director: Gene Cajayon
Screenplay: Gene Cajayon, John Manal Castro
Review published September 12, 2003
The Debut earns its distinction by being the first wholly Filipino-American film production, and judging by the talent of the cast and crew here, it will be far from the last. Like many other movies that showcase an ethnic group not normally depicted in a Hollywood film, it revolves around a celebration. Although many other similar films go for the marriage route, The Debut is all about the debutante party, a rite of passage for a young woman becoming a woman. The irony is that hidden underneath, it's really about a boy becoming a man, and more importantly, coming to understand his roots and Filipino heritage, and the importance of family and tradition.
The star of the film will probably be the only one recognizable to moviegoers, Dante Basco, who has grown up in front of us in such films as Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, Spielberg's Hook, and most recently in Biker Boyz. However, this is a rare chance for him to be a star of a film, and with a nice performance, he shows enough talent to merit consideration for more starring roles, not just ones which require him to be Filipino.
He plays aspiring artist Ben Mercado, who we first see cashing in his impressive comic book collection to pay for tuition for art school. His family looks down on his art, seeing it more as a hobby, and they want him to carry the family tradition and go to school to become a doctor. Ben is embarrassed by his Filipino heritage, choosing to hang out with the white crowd, not really wanting to engage in traditional customs, learn Tagalog, or even have friends over to the house for fear they will see the ethnic cooking and furnishings and think he is uncool. A big party is coming up, which just happens to coincide with the debut of his baby sister, Rose. In order not to disappoint his father any more than he has to, Ben plans on making a token appearance for his sister's sake, then join his buddies later at the party he really wants to go to. As it turns out, sometimes it's more fun to be with the people right in your own backyard.
The Debut isn't the kind of movie that's going to blow you away with originality or throw lots of new ideas at you from a filmmaking standpoint. It still stands alone because it showcases to a wider audience a very diverse and important group of Americans that have been largely ignored in mainstream film and entertainment. There's such a dearth of roles for Filipinos, that even popular Filipino actors like Lou Diamond Phillips (Young Guns, La Bamba) have to play Mexicans, Native Americans, or even roles written with a white person in mind to make a living. So for a little film about a young boy coming to terms with his heritage, it's an important one, particularly for other Filipinos in the movie industry.
It's a simple story, nothing terribly fancy, but it's always fun to watch, and Cajayon's script gives us good characterizations while his direction is energetic enough to keep the interest level high. Perhaps the only real weakness to the production comes from some of the small supporting actors who have little acting experience, and the occasional moments where someone feels the need to give a speech, over-playing the believability factor in favor of some well-meaning preaching. Luckily, in both instances, they are easily overshadowed by The Debut's finer qualities, its charm, and its talented crew.
If you like little films with a lot of heart, particularly ones that showcase sections of our society you haven't seen portrayed before, The Debut gets a recommendation for entertainment and the occasional food for thought. It's an oft-told coming-of-age tale at its core, but nearly impossible to dislike all the same.
©2003 Vince Leo