Billie And Emma


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Billie And Emma
"There are fine performances throughout and the two leads are both excellent."

Billie (Zar Donato) is reading Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle. The paperback is old and worn, clearly well loved. When she reads it, she says, she feels as if there might be somebody out there who feels the way she does, that she might not be alone.

That there was at least one such person back in Manila is the reason why Billie has been sent to live with her aunt in a small provincial town where she will attend a Catholic school which teaches that homosexual acts are sinful. This is just part of a whole package of beliefs with which the sophisticated city girl feels ill at ease. She's immediately marked out by her short hair and all her efforts to fit in only make her seem more different, but she's saved from isolation and bullying by the attentions of popular girl Emma (Gabby Padilla), who is also the school's star student. To Emma, Billie's differences are cool, signifying the excitement of the city where she hopes to study when she wins a scholarship. Unfortunately, there's an obstacle in Emma's path: she has just fallen pregnant.

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There's a lot happening in Samantha Lee's energetic second feature but the various strands are woven together in a way that feels entirely natural. We meet Emma's loving but disorganised mother (Beauty Gonzalez), who has struggled to get by without a man in her life for many years, and Emma's boyfriend Miguel (Ryle Paolo Santiago), whose main failing, apart from his carelessness in bed, is that he's deeply boring. We also meet Billie's aunt (Cielo Aquino), who will trigger any adult's gaydar in seconds yet whose unmarried status is apparently a mystery to her niece. Every supporting character is given their due, with even the nun who runs the school presented as morally complex and very human. There are fine performances throughout and the two leads are both excellent, especially Padilla, whose character is much more complex than she initially appears.

As the two girls find themselves drawn together and the beginnings of a tender love story emerge, the film moves beyond simple romantic drama to explore other issues around motherhood, bodily autonomy, parental responsibility, independence and the right to education. Emma has something of the quality of a 19th Century literary heroine, unconvinced by the weight that others give to love, looking for something more in her life. She fights against others' desire to categorise or control her, despite meeting with good intentions from everyone. For all this drama, however, Lee maintains a light touch and imbues the film with the brightness and freshness of young love. She knows when to use silence and stillness when a lesser writer would have suffocated the moment with dialogue, trusting her actors to tell us all we need to know.

The schoolgirl drama here is beautifully observed and together with the detailed set decoration and the sentimental yet socially appropriate use of music it recalls the work of John Hughes, only with more social awareness and without the concessions to rape culture. By avoiding the more obvious dramatic routes and never allowing the social to overwhelm the personal, it crafts something delicate and delightful that still rings true. It's deceptively intelligent, funny, perceptive and a joy to watch.

Reviewed on: 26 Oct 2019
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A pregnant teenage girl falls in love with the new girl in school.

Director: Samantha Lee

Writer: Samantha Lee

Starring: Gabby Padilla, Zar Donato, Beauty Gonzalez, Cielo Aquino

Year: 2018

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: Philippines


Iris 2019
Newfest 2019

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