Star-Bulletin Features

Trouble follows when Ben (Danté Basco) makes friends with Annabelle (Joy Bisco).

‘The Debut’ has
universal appeal

By Shawn "Speedy" Lopes

With a panoramic skyline view of Los Angeles Harbor in the opening moments of "The Debut," one might assume the acclaimed film by Filipino-American filmmaker Gene Cajayon employs a certain Southern California perspective. But for Filipinos in Hawaii, not to mention those who have resided in and around Filipino communities in Hawaii, many of the film's themes may seem surprisingly universal when it officially premieres this weekend on Oahu.

"The Debut" is a coming-of-age story in which an artistically gifted Filipino youth (played by Danté Basco, who has also appeared in "Fakin' Da Funk," "Hook" and "Moesha") named Ben Mercado faces a cultural and generational gap which places him opposite his demanding Philippine-born father Roland (played by Tirso Cruz III). The decision to reject medical school for an art college sets up one of a number of dilemmas for the younger Mercado.

The ensuing drama however, is tempered with an equal measure of inside humor. Home life, complete with giant-sized spoon and fork set, like those seen hanging from the walls of many Filipino homes and a familiar barrel-costumed figurine will no doubt elicit knowing giggles.

The number of Filipinos here (more than 12 percent of Hawaii's population according to recent census figures) who can identify with the movie's theme, may help to explain its Blockbuster Audience Award win at the 2000 Hawai'i International Film Festival. More likely though, local viewers cast their votes for "The Debut" simply because it is a good flick whose time has come. Just ask noted critic Roger Ebert, who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up, as did numerous reviewers for such publications as A. magazine, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

It is during his sister Rosemary's birthday bash that young Ben finds himself at odds not only with his Old World elders, but also with the ebonics-speaking, hoop shooting, "rice rocket" drivers of his peer group.

A former childhood friend, Augusto (played with a believable thuggish slant by Darion Basco), reappears at the family function with a chip on his shoulder and a 9mm pistol strapped to his side. When Ben sparks a friendship with Augusto's ex-girlfriend Annabelle (Joy Bisco), trouble brews and a confrontation seems inevitable. Eventually, tempers come to a boil, giving way to "The Debut's" most gripping and emotional scenes.

While a landmark achievement in many ways, the movie's numerous re-writes (it took eight years and more than 20 revisions before the film saw the light of day) may explain some of its minor shortcomings. A potentially explosive romantic interest in a white classmate alluded to in an early scene is never followed through, and the amorous development between Ben and Annabelle, while quaint, is of little consequence to the overall story.

A keener focus on the complex relationships within the Mercado family and increased interaction between Cruz and esteemed Filipino actor Eddie Garcia, who plays the stern grandfather with great charisma, would have made for an even more compelling film.

"The Debut" is, however, groundbreaking in its use of an almost exclusively Filipino-American cast, its true-to-life portrayal of Filipino-Americans, and its refusal to kowtow to the whitewashed Hollywood perspective. It proudly verifies the existence of one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country and does so with certain panache.

Put simply, "The Debut" is an important movie which every American, regardless of prefix, should see.

"The Debut"

Not rated

Playing at Consolidated Kapolei, Ko'olau Stadium and Ward Stadium; and Signature Pearl Highlands


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