I have a secret. When watching a movie, it doesn’t take much for me to shed a tear. I’m Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig (“Broadcast News”). I could outcry Roxanne Barcelo (Pinoy Big Brother) or any of Kim Chiu’s teleserye personas. Any hint of an emotional strife in a story, I easily employ my lachrymal glands for catharsis. Crying feels good, and even better when my boyfriend watches a movie with me. Men seem to adore me more when I sob and turn to their bulging muscle-bound shoulder for solace. When Jerry Lopez Sineneng’s “Way Back Home” came to the fore, I knew I’d be in for some orgasmic marathon-style crying.
When little sisters Jessica and Joanna (Julia Montes and Kathryn Bernardo respectively) join their parents for a beach outing in Zambales, the younger Joanna wanders off and is never seen again. For the next 12 years, Amy (Agot Isidro), the girls’ mother, is inconsolable. She stares into the great beyond, hair beautifully coiffed, garment immaculately pressed. The mere kink, i.e. losing a daughter, in her charmed existence has taken its toll on Jessica, now 16, who carries the burden of having lost her little sister. She overachieves in school with the hopes of gaining her dear mother’s attention, but all her effort is for nought. One day, during a swim meet where Jessie is to compete, Amy hears a young girl Anna (Bernardo) singing a lullaby (Francis Salazar’s “Langit”) at the ladies room; the very same song Amy used to sing to her little Joanna. The song made her suspend her bowel movement. You would if you suddenly found your lost daughter, wouldn’t you?
During the swim meet, Amy instead roots for Anna who eventually wins the championship, all the while ignoring Jessica who settles for second place. Amy runs to Anna’s side and without much batting an eyelash, declares, “Joanna, naalala mo ba ako?” Anna is nonplussed and bewildered. We don't blame her. There’s this labile woman – with beautifully coiffed hair, garment immaculately pressed – claiming her. Anna returns to her seaside home, in a fishing village where her loving, albeit impoverished family subsists on the bounties of the sea. She then asks her mother Lerma (Lotlot de Leon), “Ba’t po wala akong kamukha sa inyo? Anak n’yo po ba ako?” ("I don't look like you. Am I your daughter?")
Anna eventually and reluctantly joins her affluent birth family, while Jessie is beginning to harbor ill feelings against her returning sister who’s enjoying her mother’s favors and attention more than ever. She detests such injustice – and the story turns into florid teleserye melodrama clutter. What becomes of saintly Anna who’s constantly getting brushed off and blatantly embarrassed by her elder sister? Will she ever find her, err… way back home? Guess.
There is meretricious theatricality on display and you can’t escape the narrative maneuverings designed to inspire some old-school whimpering. I must have cried a bucket. Unfortunately, it gets too obvious that such manipulations have resulted into a contrived and unctuous yarn lacking discernment.
On point of performance, Julia Montes fares better than pretty Kathryn. Her depiction of a conflicted Jessie is insightfully threshed out despite unfair caricature as it's written. She’s the bitter and vindictive sister. As she spews out her venom against saintly Anna, you absolutely understand why she’s cantankerous. That we don’t find her a despicable creature altogether is a testament to her ability to allow us understanding of what her character is going through. That she doesn't come off silly or caustic is a marvel. And that’s a feat!
Kathryn Bernardo is a charmer, she lights up the screen when she smiles. Unfortunately, Anna is written on desultory wisdom. Her whole being is nothing but a komiks heroine not dissimilar to those written by Nerissa Cabral and Gilda Olvidado, i.e. unnaturally good natured she would put some saints out to pasture. If you believed her kindness is reality-based, then you’re as naïve as, say, KC Concepcion. (wink wink)
There are bothersome parts of the story: Agot Isidro takes a meaty role as grieving mother Amy, yet 12 years is such a long time for bereavement. When it happens, such melancholic state should underline a clinical pathology. People who can’t cope should manifest in their manner of dressing, in their sleeping habits, in their general appearance. Agot, for the most part, looked ready to walk the runway. Even when she screams, which is awkward, her action feels deceitful. You don’t feel her pain, but you see her lurid facial contortions. Her character grasp is too loose to derive sympathy. This is what theatrical experience taught her? And what are the odds of finding your lost child in a swimming contest? Moreover, that this particular child still sings the same lullaby that was once taught her as a three year old. Serendipitous affairs can only go so far in the natural scheme of things.
Then there's this lump-on-the-throat idea that Montes and Bernardo (as Jessie and Joanna) are actual sisters. The purview of such all-encompassing artistic freedom to make them blood sisters is too far fetched. It is more believable to quaff Montes as Lotlot's daughter. After all, both Lotlot and Kathryn have Caucasian blood. Otherwise, we heavily rely on suspension of disbelief with the narrative at hand.
The movie is beautifully photographed (Julius Villanueva); the screen glistens with postcard-pretty locations and sanitized camera work. Even the derelict kubo (hut) in Anna’s fishing village looks like a little piece of heaven. One is reminded of Romy Vitug's work back in the days. Enrique Gil registers well, his “fish jokes” provide momentary diversion but it also dispenses unnecessary off-kilter detour to an already overwrought narrative. Ditto Sam Concepcion who plays AJ, Jessie’s love interest (a character that pays homage to AJ Perez). Lotlot de Leon brandishes a perceptive, if a tad underwritten part as Joanna's adoptive mother. And I like Ahron Villena who plays Joanna and Jessie's brother (he looks so clean and good looking).
Since we’ve mentioned about distractions, let me just point out the character of the maid who’s made out to be a Visayan character. Though she was designed to provide humor to this sullen story, she was distracting and downright annoying. We have had Visayan maids yet they never speak like she did, exaggerating every syllable with quasi-delivery and hard syllabication. Let’s take the following examples: People in Visayas and
Another distraction was Angeline Quinto’s faulty elocution while singing Odette Quesada’s “You’re My Home”. It goes: “You’re my home, and together we share this love for us… You’re my home and together we’ll strive to make this world a better place to be.” If felt like needle pricks every time she would repeatedly lash out “to-ged-der” with inspired bravado. It’s a “th”, girl – not “d”. There’s a difference.
For those partial to their Pink Films, there are a couple of characters that would tickle their fancy: Josh Ivan Morales of the notorious “Ang Lihim ni Antonio” does a cameo as Tiyo Dado, Anna’s “uncle” (mother Lerma’s brother). Ray-an Dulay (“Kambyo”, “Ang Laro sa Buhay ni Juan”, “Ben and Sam”) also cameos as Anna’s adoptive father Berto, though he’s been relegated to flashbacks. This is a heads up to the men who made their cinematic splash from exploitative gay-themed films. Director Sineneng surely has an eye for such studs. These may be bit roles for Morales and Dulay but they render their profession legitimacy and provide avenues for future mainstream appearances.
Bernardo and Montes have a bright future ahead of them. They are watchable and hold such promise. They could be the next big thing. But longevity in the business doesn't rest on mush and sentimental schmaltz. I may have cried buckets over such clutter, but those tears would have evaporated long before the next promising stars make their mark. They could do better with non-manipulative stories and perceptive directors.