Ben Mercado (Dante Basco) is a young Filipino-American living in California. Just out of high school, Ben is ready to pursue his dreams of being an artist. His desire to be an artist does not comply with the doctors career his stern father intends him to follow. Unable to face his father who sees his art as a hobby, Ben has saved his money from working at a bookstore, sold off his comic collection, and, without telling anyone, paid for his first years tuition at an art school. Perhaps in part because of his fathers pressure and feeling like an outsider, Ben has largely shunned his Filipino background and mainly hangs out with white friends.
On the night of his sisters eighteenth birthday party, sort of the Filipino equivalent of a debutante ball, Ben is torn between his two worlds, hanging with his family and fellow Filipino-Americans, or going to a high school party with his buddies. To his surprise, Ben finds that the night changes his thinking about his family and his culture. He meets a cool girl, Anna, the ex of one of his former friends, Augsto, who has become a self styled street thug. But, most valuably, he sees that his father had a similar, rocky, disapproving relationship with his grandfather. As the evening goes on, Ben begins to realize the worth in his heritage and that it is just as valuable as staying true to pursuing his dreams.
The Debut (2000) is an independent feature made and heavily supported by the Filipino-American community. It is a very charming little film that gives insight into a segment of the US population that does not get seen very often. It is also a classic tale of finding ones identity, both in what your passion is in life and your blood relations. You don't have to be an immagrant to enjoy the story.
Of course, with any film aimed at presenting a culture (you could almost call the film My Big Fat Filipino Birthday Party), one of the fun things is learning. Aside from the traditional dance numbers and some glimpses into the family structure, you see the Americanization of this Filipino generation that has grown up in the US. Something I didn't know about them was that Filipino-American kids embrace hip hop culture. The film is filled with it, urban slang, suped-up slick street cars, some b-ball playing, some DJ turntable action, and even a Soul Train line and dance challenge. It is surprising to see a five foot five Filipino kid greeting his friends with "Hey nigger, whazz up." and how Augusto insults Ben by calling him "white boy." It just goes to show what a melting pot we've got.
The film does have some independent/low budget limitations, but from the script, to the direction, and the production design, it is largely an admirable affair. There is the occasional spotty performance by inexperienced actors, like Ben's' high school buddies. Overall, the acting is quite good- the standouts being Tirso Cruz III as Ben's father and the beautiful Joy Bisco as Anna. Although the storyline is a bit clichéd, "the coming of age tale of a kid who wants to do something other than what his parents have planned", but the script still moves well with interesting characters and keenly added information about Filipino culture. Even the nature of the limited location, that is, the film being mainly set at the party, is not forced, and the film has plenty of room to breathe. What we get is a successful combination of a familiar storyline with a fresh slant on a largely unseen culture.
The DVD: Columbia Tristar
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. There are some instances where the image does show marks of its low budget and doesn't quite have the slickness of your typical studio financed effort. It is adequately sharp, but there are often moments where the lighting is a bit drab, resulting in a softer, less vibrant image. Colors are quite strong and the photography makes good use of primary colors. Fleshtones, especially, are well presented and warm. There is some grain and blemishes, but it is free of any transfer defects like artifacts or edge enhancement. Good presentation of an indie effort.
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 English (and some Filipino) language with optional English, Filipino, Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Chinese subtitles. The music is mixed quite nicely and comes through with adequate boom and bass and fades pleasantly into the background when needed. There were a few instances where the dialogue was ill-recorded and distorted, once again, the product of low budget film making. Overall, though, voices come through crisp and clear.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers for The Debut, Can't Hardly Wait, and Hollywood Homicide--- Making of Debut Featurette (21:06) Very nice look with the filmmakers struggles and passion behind making the film, which was a ten year long, truly indie, grassroots effort.--- "The Little Film That Could: Touring The Country" Featurette (8:21) Chronicles the effort made to get the film seen, touring for two years, self promoting, with little/no budget to market it.--- Deleted Scenes--- Gag Reel (2:45)--- TV Spots--- Original Debut Short Film (9:00) by Gene Cajayan. This was the final college film that Cajayan used to convince financiers to back the feature. --- Dairy of a Gangsta Short Film (10:41) by co-writer John Manual Castro--- "The Mercado Files" Three short interviews: The Art of Debut (2:08), The Debut Music (1:58), and The Basco Bros. (3:14)--- DVD Rom Links--- Commentary by director Gene Cajayan and co-writer John Manual Castro. Pretty, nice, general anecdotes about the film, mentioning the photography, the casting, and the hurdles they overcame.
Conclusion: One of the great things about DVD is when a little film is given this kind of attention. Probably, its largest audience will be found on video, and it is satisfying to see such a small film getting a decent transfer with a pleasing round of extras.