D: Ivan Andrew Payawal
S: Bela Padilla, Rob Rownd, Elizabeth Oropesa, Kate Bautista, Lui Manansala, Matt Evans, Joe Vargas, Rhyzza Kafilas, Raflesia Bravo, Thou Reyes, Julz Savard
The pursuit of patriarchal acceptance takes centerstage in Ivan Andrew Payawal‘s I America. This is the budding director’s first Cinemalaya entry and his second full-length feature following 2015’s The Comeback.
Set in the former G.I. hub of Olongapo City, this saga follows Erica Berry (Bela Padilla), a Filipina-American who tries to make ends meet through commercial modelling. Raised in an unorthodox family set-up, she lives with her doting aunt (Lui Manansala) and two surrogate sisters, half-African American Balot (impressive nuanced performance by singer Rhyzza Kafilas) and spunky prostitute Jo Anne (daring turn by former child star Sheena Ramos).
A window of opportunity is opened when Erica encounters an American named John Berry (Rob Rownd) through Facebook. Believing him to be her father, Erica seeks to reunite with him at all costs. However, her quest for the necessary travel documents yields more questions – than answers – about her true identity. She then confronts her estranged mother Rose (the ever-phenomenal Elizabeth Oropesa), an alcoholic brothel owner who might be carrying more secrets about her storied past – “might” being the operative word.
Suddenly, Erica finds her aspirations for a better life enmeshed with more mystery as contradictions begin to unravel. She must now choose between deceitfully chasing her American dream versus sticking with the truth and the hellhole she calls home.
To boost authenticity, Payawal spent portions of pre-production interviewing real-life half-Americans from Olongapo. The research paid off. Their yearnings, frustrations, and sentiments are all beautifully encapsulated by Erica’s characterization. After all, Erica is the central force here – in case you missed the titular pun.
The film was shot with a poet’s eye – the poet in question being cinematographer Carlo Mendoza, whose shaky camera work adds documentary-style realism to the proceedings. His money shots, along with the parent-daughter exchanges, are the most poignant set pieces.
I America isn’t totally a smooth outing. In spots, it still contains the same pitfalls that challenged its predecessor – the penchant for squad goals, the propensity towards slapstick, and the knack for character-cramming (Matt Evans was particularly underutilized). Thankfully, the mannerisms are now kept at bay and the comedic breaks are now more calculated, making a more balanced dramedy. If anything, that indicates Payawal’s continuing learning curve.
Even with its less-than-solid moments, the film never falls apart. It is Bela Padilla‘s commanding and buoyant performance that pulls everything together amidst the occasional haziness, thus still making I America a fun and worthwhile journey. The sincerity seeps through.