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REVIEW | ‘The Hows of Us’

Stephanie Mayo

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No escapist movie

Cathy Garcia-Molina goes hardcore drama in the Star Cinema rom-com The Hows of Us, cramming all sorts of problems one could possibly experience in a lifetime: financial problems, heartbreak, unfulfilled dreams, incurable illness, death, losing a parent, falling behind, singlehood and the general economic culture of living in the Philippines.

That’s not to say that the movie is terrible. In fact, Molina manages to coherently weave together a watchable, sympathetic love story. The story, also by Molina, bristles with painful truths and relatable situations.

Sometimes, though, the movie feels like it desperately wants to meander outside of Star Cinema rom-com territory, but is unable to do so — pressured to fulfill the usual lovey-dovey tropes and the mandatory trip abroad. And making sure that KathNiel fans are not shortchanged of giddy thrills.

Med-school student George (Kathryn Bernardo) and musician Primo (Daniel Padilla) fall in love during a school debate on gender superiority — attracted and impressed by each other’s talent for arguing their points so eloquently.

The two hit it off and decide to live together in an old pre-war house passed down to them by George’s mom’s young aunt, or Tita Lola (Susan Africa). Like all young couples, the two have big dreams in their respective fields. And then they start to pretentiously call each other “Jo,” a Scottish term of endearment.

Their love is tested as soon as the bills start piling up, the house becomes filthy and there’s nothing to eat anymore. Here comes the passion-versus-practicality dilemma.

After seven years together, Primo still hasn’t experienced his big break in the music industry, inadvertently putting their relationship under great financial distress. Although this dilemma has been used in other local romantic movies, Padilla’s Primo perfectly captures the artistic temperament. He’s not lazy. He is simply Primo, who only thrives and survives in music, and is very genre-specific. These barriers are real, with Primo not acting like a villain, but a real human being with his own weaknesses and helplessness.

Did George know what she was getting into? Yes. She is aware that she signed up for a lifetime commitment to an artist. You cannot blame her for being head over heels in love with a man she knew in her heart would make it big someday.

It’s the reality that stuns the persistent and patient George. And here’s what the film beautifully and aptly illustrates: not all your dreams can come true. A life driven by passion may not be wrong but it’s not necessarily what is intended for you. A creative pursuit may or may not get you anywhere. And bills are real. Hunger is real. Medical needs are real.

The love team delivers efficient performances. Viewers that are not fans of the KathNiel tandem will not get affected by their displays of affection and romantic tension, but will find themselves scrutinizing the dynamics of a long-term love affair.

Although Molina lends clarity to her narrative, and keeps an audience moderately engaged, the tone sometimes feels uneven. Her dramatic scenes are too heavy, rippling with a strong sense of despondency. But when she shifts to comedy, the film becomes cartoonish, the gags meandering to slapstick and goofiness, with Bernardo turning theatrical. These “humorous” sequences feel like an entirely different movie.

Darren Espanto features into the film as George’s diabetic younger brother Yohan. The kid is relaxed in front of the camera, delivering a reliable performance. A character designed to add conflict and a dramatic layer usually assigned to parents, Yohan is still the stereotypical pawn, the unfortunate sick family member in order for your protagonists’ generosity and kindness to shine, as well as a manipulative tactic to make you mentally go “awwww.”

Juan Miguel Severo, the spoken-word-artist-turned-actor, plays George’s mandatory gay best friend. He makes strong arguments against Primo, contributing to a viewer’s stress and anxiety over George’s out-of-control and messed up life. He is likeable when he’s concerned with George, but his confession in the latter part of the film suddenly turns him into an envious psychopath.

The production design is commendable, accurately depicting a real sense of home: the clutter, the dirty dishes, the-less-than-perfect household items. Finally, a film that understands what a natural home looks like. More so, a home inhabited by a depressed artist.

There is constant rain in the movie – endless rainfall that already borders on ridiculous and comical. Instead of setting dramatic and romantic mood, as it aims to be, the rain becomes too much. This is also the case for the characters’ irritating pronunciation of “tulip,” another symbolical element that Molina incorporates throughout the film.

Molina heads toward melodrama through household items that trigger memories: a rotten sofa or a doll house. It’s mildly questionable, too, that when Tita Lola passed away, she did not leave any of her stuff to the kids. Just the house. Where is Tita Lola’s original sofa?

Original television? Why did the young couple need to purchase a sala set? Maybe it’s a matter of taste, you tell yourself.

But what will remind you of this film in years to come is its heavily preachy treatment. Molina and her co-screenwriters overcrowd the script with life lessons, sentimental words of wisdom, existential solutions, purpose and meaning. Although not annoying, and generally intelligent, the preachiness somehow bogs down an otherwise trite rom-com.

The Hows of Us is a portrait of genuine love and provides a strong romantic conflict. But apart from its tonal shifts, it is too despondent. It’s like a depressed movie, drowning in many sorrows, but forcing itself to be cute and optimistic.

It still has that Star Cinema brand of a happy-ever-after and that is okay. But burdened by too much drama, this is no escapist movie. It’s a lengthy presentation of how life sucks, and giving you two effective tips: “Ride with the tide” and never let go of true love.

3 out of 5 stars

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