Movies should be judged on its own merits, but sometimes discourse around it seeps into the film well before one’s first viewing. As I pressed play on Dead Kids a week after its release, I was already (painfully) aware of its stellar social media reception and, subsequently, the arguments being made on the state of the Philippine film industry. Audiences regarded it as the first ‘good’ Filipino film in recent memory; naysayers countered that the people who think so see Filipino films as a monolithic Vice Ganda franchise, thus gobbling down any movie with the tiniest sliver of aesthetic. ‘Good’ Filipino films are not scarce, many declared. You just don’t know how to look for it.
The first Filipino Netflix Original, Dead Kids is more Netflix than it is Filipino or original. Its angst is commercial and crowd-pleasing, not too different from the usual coming-of-age offerings of the streaming service. Director Mikhail Red is unafraid to touch on strong, timely themes but has yet to figure out how to organically embed it into his work. Elements of the drug war were added to this film almost as an afterthought. The story felt like a template; its setting, an insert.
This is not to say tackling such themes in film is impossible. After all, many of this year’s best movies are about big issues told through small stories, i.e. Cinemalaya Best Film winner John Denver Trending. But Dead Kids wanted itself to be bigger than it should be, losing its message in the process. It spent too much time congratulating itself on its overt inclusion of political buzzwords that it overlooked the fact that one must actually have some understanding of these issues before it can be successfully depicted onscreen.
Similar to Birdshot, Red held his audience at a distance. The main four, despite almost all scenes containing at least one of them, felt like strangers. Tension felt flat and climaxes plateaued fairly quickly because frankly, we don’t know enough about the protagonists to care about them. Sue Ramirez’s Janina is the best example: an underwritten character serving only as the love interest, her purposelessness poorly masked by her monotone personality and personal aspirations—the latter added just so she can slightly miss the textbook definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is still one, though.
Ramirez is solely to thank for the shred of life Janina had. In fact, much of my enjoyment was due greatly to the cast, who, despite being let down by an insufficient, inauthentic script, still managed to make paper characters feel nuanced. The plot pushed the characters to extremes, and no single actor faltered.
At the end of the day, regardless of its outstanding technical elements, Dead Kids is, put bluntly, empty. What was a commentary on elite privilege and the naïveté of rich kids who could get away with anything became the very thing it was critiquing: it had a distorted understanding of reality, if not completely detached from it, ubiquitous neon lights and cafeteria food fights included. Its praise is undeserved when its well-lit artifice did little than exceed the already narrow mold most audiences associate with local films. But the “you just don’t know where to find the good films” argument is weak and pointless. Why blame the audiences for clamoring for something better if subpar films are what is made accessible to them? If there’s one thing Dead Kids got right, it’s that it made viewers realize that there’s a whole realm of socially aware, beautifully made Filipino movies that remain mainly undiscovered. Dead Kids, however, does not belong to that realm.