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We Are Still Here

17 Apr

Emerald Flaviano

It’s the first week of classes in a public high school in Angeles City, Pampanga, sometime in the late 1990s and a boy, backpacked and solitary, stares at a group of his classmates horsing around. We follow his line of sight and so are party to the rowdy youngsters’ rude return to the boy’s indifferent gaze. Later, these very same teenagers get a tongue-lashing from the anti-“barriotic” English teacher while the boy, smirking, looks on. And so 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten’s hero, Felix Salonga (Khalil Ramos), is introduced. A world contained within himself, Felix has always been alone. He is the top student in his class because he really is smart, and not because he sucks up to the teacher (as his frumpy #2 and #3, Zarina and Girlie do). He has no friends, but is cool with it, having no use for the “unremarkable individuals in this forlorn school.”

His world is upset however, when the Snyder brothers transfer to his school. For the first time, something that is not Omegaboy interests the characteristically unengaged Felix. The sons of a US serviceman and a Filipina Fields Avenue hooker, Magnus (Ethan Salvador) and Maxim (Jameson Blake) are unlike anyone Felix has ever met: pale, handsome, English-speaking, and rich, they disturb the social structure of the small high school. Magnus inadvertently displaces the reigning alpha male of the class, Felix attracts the envious attention of girls eyeing Magnus, and teachers try to seduce either of the brothers. But for Felix, who becomes a regular in the Snyder household helping Magnus with his geometry, the reason is also economic. For the brothers, money is immaterial: Magnus pays Felix ten dollars per geometry lesson, while Maxim hands out dollars for dares. On the other hand, money has always been scarce in the Salonga household, but Felix thinks that the “pieces of green paper” he has been collecting in a tin can—proceeds from his tutoring—bring him closer to the same level as to the Snyder brothers.

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Magnus Snyder. (screengrab from 2 Cool 2 B 4gotten’s screener)

The brothers are both good-looking, but Felix gets particularly taken with the aptly-named Magnus, the gentler of the two. Magnus’ small kindnesses—a borrowed Walkman, mixtapes—and not-yet-outgrown love of Omegaboy endear him to Felix. Magnus is the golden-haired Florante, who Felix saves from a lions’ den of dull classmates and sexually predatory teachers, the misguided dream to go to the US, the malevolent Maxim. Yet it is Felix’s sharing of what is probably the single most significant—up until Magnus’ death that is—event in his young life that Felix affirms his love for his only and best friend. He takes Magnus to the place where his old house used to stand, now buried under the lahar, and recounts the day the Pinatubo erupted and his family’s narrow escape. “[T]here was nothing. It was like our house didn’t even exist at all. The lahar took everything,” Felix remembers while Magnus listens. Felix is surprised to receive Magnus’ “You’re pretty cool, Felix” and an awkward but heartfelt side-hug, but is grateful nevertheless. For it is not only Magnus’ concern that Felix gets, but a perfect understanding of himself: Felix might still be uncomfortable with being “gay,” constrained as he is by his youth and the conservative environment he grew up in, but he knows for certain that he loves (has) Magnus, and that is all that matters.

Yet for all Felix’s fascination with the Magnus, he cannot quite understand why leaving the Philippines for the US means so much for the Snyder brothers. “This shitty country,” “a horrible place for me and Magnus” are how they describe the only home that they have always known. 2 Cool does not quite tease out Magnus and Maxim’s isolation, but what little it does offer is enough to read on probabilities. Despite being born and growing up in Pampanga, the brothers don’t (can’t?) speak either Kapampangan or Tagalog, don’t have any friends, and are most unlikely to have known family other than their mother. They live in a bubble, expats confined in their “little America” (the former Clark Air Base), with its joyless copies of the typical American suburban home (“picturesque houses,” is how the starry-eyed Felix describes them). In a city full of families who have yet to recover from the eruption of the Pinatubo, the brothers in their porma, with their dollars and English, are alien. Felix’s clumsy lyricism—“The shiny shimmering Snyder brothers. The dual dukes of exquisiteness. The genetic miracles of interracial copulation.”—describing Magnus and Maxim, while funny, hints at the reverent distancing that the brothers have always had to endure. Their difference has always defined them first and marked them out, and in this isolation the brothers has always had only one another. But at the crucial moment, when it comes in an afternoon in the middle of Subic Bay’s choppy waters, Magnus jumps off their bobbing buoy to save their mother—the unsuspecting collateral damage of Maxim’s plan to get their chance at really belonging somewhere.

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Magnus and Maxim Snyder, alone together. (screengrab from 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten‘s screener)

Petersen Vargas’ debut feature 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten (2016) expands on his previous work on gay sexual awakening with his short film Lisyun Qng Geografia and benefits from Jason Paul Laxamana’s continuing engagement with issues of race in a post-US bases Pampanga. Laxamana’s script paints a painstaking picture of high school and its—now ridiculously pointless—rituals: the sing-song greetings, the gratifying and shaming top 3s, bottom 3s, and ruler smacks. But this nostalgic return is made more effective by Felix’s awkwardly affected English for his journal project, an accurate reminder of youthful fumblings for one’s own voice.

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Posted by on 17/04/2017 in Film Review

 

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