The best way to describe San Jose native Gene Cajayon’s “The Debut” is crowd-pleasing. At the Hawaii film festival, it beat out competitors such as “George Washington” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” for the audience award. The coming-of-age tale of a boy and of an American minority culture has proven so popular with Bay Area audiences that the film drew out its sell-out run at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival into a limited-release engagement.
Although the title is taken from the 18th birthday and coming-out celebration for Rose Mercado (Bernadette Balagtas), the film instead focuses on brother Ben (Pittsburg native Dant Basco), who has long shunned Filipino traditions in favor of his (white) friends and his animation artwork. Unbeknownst to his immigrant postman father, he has rejected a UCLA scholarship and potentially medical school and sunk all his savings into an art academy tuition.
Much of his inevitable revelations happen in the course of one night. Caught between a night of relatives and a sure thing with a blonde hottie at another party, Ben decides he’ll make his token elder-son appearance and split.
The delight comes from seeing so much of Filipino-American culture on screen, such as the traditional and modern dance maneuvers, R&B groups and disc-jockeying. Truly satirical comic moments emerge in its archetypal characters: the militant Pinoy (Derek Basco); the wannabe gangbanger (Darion Basco) adopting the urban black experience as his own; the loud aunt (Brandon Martin) married to the more Filipino-than-thou white man (Rowland Kerr) he points out to fellow partygoers that Filipinos aren’t Asian, but Malay.
As a complex drama, “The Debut,” although eight years in the making, is very much a freshman effort. At best, it’s earnest an admittedly backhanded compliment that doesn’t excuse the sometimes amateurish, derivative writing and hackneyed scenarios. While Dant Basco does have a baby-faced charm, his character is actually the weakest link: He’s the prop before which Filipino-American culture parades itself to convince him of its worth.
Despite its insider take, “The Debut” still looks at a minority culture from the viewpoint of the outsider. Watching his closest friends enjoy the debut party, Ben realizes he has given short shrift to their cultural tolerance and his own legacy. At the same time, he needs their approval as representatives of the “dominant” culture to legitimize his.
Understandably, director and co-writer Cajayon starts from the vantage point of inferiority, since he has admitted in interviews to being ashamed of his own heritage while growing up. Does that diminish his film’s sincerity, or the questions it raises on identity? No. At the same time, overcoming shame is just one approach to accepting a hybrid identity.
More fascinating and complex is the reconciliation of American and Filipino values, a route being undertaken by sister Rose and her best friend, Annabelle (Joy Bisco), or the lifetime costs of acculturation, hinted at in the tense relationships between three generations of men.
Some reaction to less-than-glowing reviews (which I have not read) presumes that critics, being white, simply don’t understand. There is something to be said for being able to step outside one’s world view. At the same time, that reasoning embraces the sort of exclusivity and “otherness” that runs counter to the film’s own themes of cultural accessibility. To recognize the film’s heart is one thing, but to ignore its narrative shortcomings would be condescending.