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Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros: Growing up gay, grim and determined

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By Lito B. Zulueta

“Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” has a deceptive charm that seems not to have faded since it became the crowd-pleaser and the Special Jury Prize winner in the first Cinemalaya independent film festival in 2005. A character study on the titillating subject of a poor homosexual kid’s coming of age, it easily shows the seemingly limitless capacity of digital cinema to provide new spins to tired narratives and concerns, endowing them with freshness, venturing new discoveries, and creating new worlds.

But looking back now, however, the achievement of Maximo Oliveros is even more astounding. Here’s an utterly small film about an utterly self-effacing character, a slum kid growing up gay and carefree, suddenly smitten by puppy love, but suddenly subjected to the ruthless social realities of the adult world, is forced to grow up and emerge not exactly unscathed but definitely unbowed.

It’s not easy to miss the conceit in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. Because of the penchant of Filipino cinema for tearjerkers and comedies tackling the travails, joys and puppy loves of adolescents and teenagers, it seems only a matter of time for our film artists to do more of the same but with a certain refocusing: if straight children could fall in love with adults, why not gay kids?

In Maxi, writer Michiko Yamamoto, director Aureus Solito, and producer Raymond Lee have found a character so appealing, so irresistible that they could never go wrong with the movie. And as played by young actor Nathan Lopez, the character is incredibly charismatic. It helps that despite his prettiness, Lopez plays the 12-year-old princess without affectation but with a freshness that could only come from the fact that he’s straight.

It could not have been otherwise since Maxi lives in a straight, sordid world. His father (played brilliantly by Soliman Cruz) is a petty thief; he has passed on the trade to Maxi’s “brusko” brothers, Bogs (Neil Ryan Sese) and Boy (Ping Medina). Maxi doesn’t quite become Bonnie to this family of Clydes since he has stopped schooling in order to keep house and fill it with the scents of his merry cooking and the grace and charm of his presence. He becomes their Ma Barker minus the advanced years, the menacing scowl, and the trigger-happy machine gun.

When Maxi is rescued from neighborhood thugs by a kind rookie cop, Victor, (J.R. Valentin), he switches from bloody mama to damsel in distress. He finds himself uncontrollably smitten with the handsome cop to the point that he becomes prone to Victor’s naive attempts to pry information from him about his father and siblings. When they gang up on Victor and teach him a lesson, Maxi is horrified and comes to his rescue. He nurses Victor’s bruises and steals a kiss from him.

But it cannot just end there—Maxi in a flight with swans and Victor nursing his wounded pride at being beaten up by petty criminals. When Maxi tries to take the friendship to another level and writes Victor a love letter, the cop spurns him. Maxi doesn’t quite react violently like the proverbial woman scorned; he merely cries on the shoulder of his brother, and the scene is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the movie.

But violence does happen. A changing of the guard in Victor’s police precinct takes place. The new leader is more business-like and he takes Victor under his wings, telling him he would teach him a more effective approach at law enforcement. It’s only a matter of time for Victor to press the case again on Maxi’s family. Their confrontation is bound to be bloody, and Maxi, despite his young years, must make the difficult decision.

Maximo Oliveros serves up all the right scenes to depict the romantic dimensions of puppy love, and viewers may get lost in the swoon and ether of love’s fables and yearnings and childhood’s daydreams and nebulas. The movie also provides titillating servings of a gay boy’s secret life—the raid of women’s wardrobe, the role-playing as a beauty contestant—that should be an eye-opener for everyone (there should be no discounting that kids, gay or straight, have secret lives and private fantasies).

Then there’s the ticklish scene of Maxi stealing glances at the naked cop struggling to get into his underwear; this should perhaps generate a lot of academic papers on how the “male gaze,” a postmodern critique on how women are stereotypically depicted as sex objects in movies by male directors, has been turned against itself: the macho gazer is exposed and commoditized by the gay gazer.

But the movie is really more than all of these.

The movie is a parable on violence. For all his cheerful disposition, both as a child and as somebody with “womanly” instincts, someone who, to apply an ancient haiku, fills an empty rice gourd with a beautiful flower, Maxi cannot avoid the assault of ugliness around him. His family is part of the underworld and he falls in love with a cop; his life is pregnant with potential and real violence. He’s like the image of the flower at the start of the movie, floating defiantly amid the effluents of the urban sewage, a thing of beauty bound to be engulfed and crushed sooner or later.

It could be said that Maxi at least has the benefit of age, which allows him to be innocent. But the same innocence is reflected in Victor, played with a quiet confidence and endearing unpretentiousness by J.R. Valentin. The greenhorn pounds his crooked beat armed with nothing but his idealism and incorruptibility. But he meets Maxi and it will only be a matter of time for his purity to be sullied and his high hopes of honest law enforcement to be frustrated. It is the innocent Maxi who crushes the cop’s own innocence. When Maxi’s family beats him up, he realizes that his badge and virtue cannot cow criminals. When a new police chief takes over and signals a new order, he learns that he must apply the ways of the criminal streets in order to stop law-breakers. He finds out that he could only stick to the straight and narrow path by taking shortcuts.

Inevitably, this is a movie about “family values.” It is not so much about sexual orientation, about the “bakla” or “shoke” in Philippine society, but about the clannish relationships that underpin much of the Filipino’s resilience and strength amid adversity, but also expose him to compromise, weakness and violence. Because he tends to them like their deceased mother, Maxi’s siblings dote on him, and he becomes their princess, and he calls them “kuya.” But when he makes the same connection with the cop, calling him “Kuya Victor,” the stage is set for a collision between his family and the cop. It is only a matter of time for the padre de familia on both sides—Maxi’s father and the new chief of police (also a father figure)—to square off like underworld bosses out to finally settle a score.

Poignant and deeply touching, ‘Maximo Oliveros” shows how innocence is no insurance against violence.

Perhaps it’s Maxi’s character that emerges as the stronger one. After all, as a minor, he is powerless to put a stop to the sheer play of bossism that governs the adult jungle. He sticks to his family but does not abide by the corrupt grown-up world. And perhaps Victor realizes this so that he seeks to make it up to Maxi. The final sequence has shades of the famous final sequence in Graham Greene and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” also a violent movie about the underworld. It shows Victor following Maxi around as the kid makes his way back to school. How the audience wishes for Maxi to stop and steal a glance at Victor, just as he did when the cop was taking a shower and changing underwear!

In a way their roles have been reversed. Because of his earnestness to reconcile with the kid, Victor seems smitten by Maxi, and Maxi seems Garbo-like in his detachment and aloofness, merely willing to play the distant object of infatuation. If there’s any resolution, it’s one that is tentative but promising: their friendship may have blossomed into a new maturity.