Festivals, Reviews

Cinemalaya 2019: ‘John Denver Trending’ – Re-evaluating Humanity in the Digital Age

When scientists began developing the internet in the 1980s, no one could have predicted the impact it would have on the world a few decades later. The internet has made it easier for people to connect with each other, raise awareness on various issues, and create discourse. If analyzed through the lens of Jürgen Habermas’s theory on mass communication, the internet/online world can be described as a public sphere, an arena where (ideally) individuals can freely discuss their ideas and beliefs without fear of discrimination; no matter what their social standing may be, everyone is treated equally. The public sphere is an important pillar of democracy, ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard, and no sector of society is neglected. Through time, however, it has regressed into a bourgeois public sphere, where opinions and methods of thinking are primarily shaped by the bourgeois class and then subconsciously forced into the masses’ psyche for the former’s personal benefits.

Such is the case in John Denver Trending, a brave and thought-provoking directorial debut from Arden Rod Condez. Here, the digital world is an extension of the physical reality, where facts are distorted, power relations are manipulated, and multi-perspectivism is weaponized. The film intelligently deconstructs the post-truth phenomenon espoused by the Duterte administration, carefully incorporating familiar real-life allegories into its narrative. President Duterte never really manifests himself in the movie, but his presence hovers ominously whenever John Denver is falsely accused, with logically fallacious arguments no less. The message is clear: the current government maintains its power by deliberately peddling disinformation and cultivating a toxic callout culture online, in effect pitting the Filipino people against each other.

However, Condez is smart enough not to dwell too much in these highfalutin intellectual abstractions. Instead, he gives the film its much needed pathos through the mother-and-son dynamics of Meryll Soriano and Jansen Magpusao, anchored primarily on the actors’ raw and heartfelt performances. They develop a certain kind of symbiotic relationship where they trust and depend on each other for emotional support. Magpusao, a first-time actor gifted with perhaps the most expressive eyes I’ve seen since Christopher De Leon’s debut in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, is particularly exhilarating to watch in his intense yet subdued portrayal of the eponymous character, juggling feelings of guilt and anxiety in a naturalistic and fragile manner. Despite having minimal dialogues, one cannot help but empathize with him and root for his character to eventually overcome his struggles.

The film is not without its flaws, however. The editing in particular is often distracting, awkwardly weaving scenes together in an unrhythmic manner. The setting in Pandan, Antique was also not used to its fullest potential, only serving as a backdrop in all the chaos that has been happening rather than serving as another layer in the narrative. Nevertheless, John Denver Trending still succeeds because it seamlessly weaves together the personal story of a teenager victimized by mob mentality with the larger socio-political situation of the country. More than ever, we now need films like John Denver Trending that uses its influence as a cultural artifact to spark a timely discourse and hopefully persuade the public to re-evaluate our morals and belief systems, lest our time to change runs out.

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