Pinay’Merican is a series of personal entries about exploring identity, as a Filipino-American, an aspiring writer, and a millennial. This is also kinda sorta for my final project in Asian American Media this semester.
During Thanksgiving break, I watched Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) by Filipino filmmaker, Auraeus Solito. This 2005 film is a coming-of-age story about a boy who lives in the slums of Manila with his two older brothers and father. He faces a dilemma where his loyalty to his family is tested by his infatuation for the new police officer, in the midst of a murder investigation.
I heard about this film years ago, when I was 12 years old (coincidentally, the same age as Maxi in the film). My mother bought a Philippine celebrity magazine that featured an article about the two leading actors, Nathan Lopez (Maxi) and JR Valentin (Victor the policeman). I don’t remember what the article said, or if it was written in English or Tagalog, but I was both fascinated and bewildered by the idea that there was a Filipino movie about a gay pre-teen. Sexuality is generally a taboo to discuss among Filipinos (mainly tied to Catholic upbringings). Even at an early age, I would shy away from peer discussions (or jokes) about sexuality, for fear that I would be influenced by such ideas (much to parental dismay). But still, I was curious about the film and what it was about.
A few years later, I chanced upon finding the film online while reading an essay on Philippine cinema. Maxi is regarded as one of the few films that put the Philippines on the cinematic map, recognizing independent filmmakers from the country at international film festivals. So it’s interesting how a film containing taboo topics, in the eyes of conservative Filipinos, would garner accolades and praise from around the world because it offers a different glimpse of the Philippines.
[Some spoilers ahead]
Take the setting of the film, for example: Manila is the capital city of the Philippines, and it continues to develop into a modernized urban space while maintaining its cultural and historical landmarks. However, you don’t see that part of Manila in the film; instead, we are given a street-level view of the urban space, where poverty and crime still linger in a developing metropolis. The opening scene of the film shows narrow alleyways, cramped and makeshift living spaces, and garbage floating in the river. (There is a shot of a pink flower floating in the green water–a wonderful and ironic motif that sets up the story.)
We are then introduced to the protagonist, Maximo “Maxi” Oliveros, a 12-year-old boy living with his two brothers and father in one of the tenement apartments. The first thing we notice about Maxi is his appearance: purple chinelas (flip-flops), an ankle bracelet, and a headband with a flower attached to it. We are never shown the full view of Maxi until after about 2 minutes in the opening of the film. With interspersed shots of residents and the streets, we are given glimpses of the character until Maxi turns his head and gives a cheeky, innocent smile to the camera. In the next shot with Maxi, we see him walk through a narrow alley filled with children. He strides with the poise of a runway model; at one point, when confronted by jeering adult men, he waves his wrist dismissively and continues his way with added sass in his step. Through this, the viewer might begin to think, “Oh, he’s young and effeminate. How will this play out in the film?” But in these short minutes of no speech from the character, we can only assume that this film is about a gay preteen.
In later scenes, we are given background on Maxi, pertaining to his life in the community. In one instance, when a group of boys come home from school, Maxi is acknowledged by one of the boys who became the top student in his class since Maxi dropped his enrollment. From this interaction, and other scenes where school is mentioned, we begin to understand that Maxi used to be the top student in his class (the other boy coming in second), and apparently a very bright student. Unfortunately, he had to drop out and help his family with financial matters (through gambling and petty theft), but mainly manage the home, since his mother passed away years ago from cancer. (We see the shrine dedicated in her honor in one corner of the apartment.) We see scenes where he is shown doing housework and cooking food for his family.
For Maxi to take on the role of “housewife”/”dutiful daughter” and to behave and speak in a feminine-way would set up conflict in the story. But it does not; the conflict does not derive from homosexuality or gender roles. Rather, the conflict focuses on relations and loyalty, in the midst of a blossoming love. The central characters are more accepting of Maxi: his brothers call him “sister” in a loving way (Maxi is more close to Boy, the second oldest, who is evidently protective of his younger brother), his father shows pride in all the work Maxi has done to keep the family going, and the policeman Victor is okay with Maxi hanging around with him.
(But I find it creepy that Victor, a grown man, also shows interest in Maxi… But that’s a whole other discussion.)
So what makes this film a critically acclaimed and successful film, coming from a country where sexuality is taboo to talk about and gender roles are enforced by Christian conservatism? One thing to note about the film is the title (in Tagalog). Pagdadalaga is used to refer to a girl’s maturation into a woman; for boy’s, it is pagbibinata. The fact that the film’s title uses a feminine term to show a boy’s maturation is a bold move in breaking down certain barriers and opening discussion on “taboo topics”.
I’d like to discuss how Maxi fits into Sara Ahmed’s “Wiggle Room”. (I’ve only read excerpts of the post, for my class, so what I say here does not reflect entire post.) Family and gender are the “rooms” portrayed in the film; they simultaneously accommodate and restrict room for Maxi to “wiggle” into a mature person.
Maxi is granted a “queer space” that allows him to “wiggle,” as evident in the attitudes of his family and his community. The father and brothers are accepting of Maxi and are protective of him because of his innocent and sensitive nature. The community treats Maxi kindly because his father helps settle disputes in the community and provides monetary support through his business of gambling. But there are certain points in the film where this queer space is challenged. The policemen in the station tease Victor about Maxi bringing him lunch, something “a girlfriend” would do (although the jokes are directed more towards Victor than to Maxi, they come at the expense of Maxi). A couple of the men in the neighborhood assault Maxi in the dark alleyway, but are stopped by Victor’s presence.
In terms of gender and family as rooms, Maxi must take on the role of the mother/daughter, the person who is expected to maintain the household while the men provide financial support. Hence, Maxi is restricted to cooking and cleaning, in the absence of his deceased mother. During the murder investigation (led by Victor), Maxi’s brothers and father prohibit him from interacting with Victor, for fear that he would be swayed into confessing the crime committed by his older brother, Boggs. This builds into the conflict of Maxi choosing between protecting his family and appeasing his crush, Victor. Maxi is unable to “wiggle” because he is uncertain about his feelings and loyalty to whom. This is also a reflection of adolescence, where young people experience new emotions and situations that hold heavy consequences.
And that is what makes this film unique. There is no political agenda behind it, but it calls attention to the politics of gender, sexuality, and family. This may be the reason behind the film’s success, in the international level, because it touches upon youth and the confusion it entails, when confronted by serious issues like love, crime, and poverty. Maxi is a special film that should be viewed as a boy’s journey into maturity, despite the circumstances he is placed into; the important thing is how he handles these situations and, as far as the film gives us, what he becomes in the end.
Other articles of interest
- Movie review on Slant Magazine
- Auraeus Solito’s website (He’s a really cool dude. A filmmaker AND a descendant of Palawan shamans!)