‘Debut’ of an American Life, Fresh and Familiar

Jennifer Bernardo
El Vaquero Editor-in-Chief

Gene Cajayon’s film “The Debut” takes viewers into the world of Filipino Americans with all its nuances, but at the same time presents the universal theme of family conflicts between generations.
The story revolves around the life of Dante Basco (Ruben Mercado), a high school senior determined to pursue a career in animation. Dante’s aspirations conflict with those of his father Roland (Tirso Cruz III), who believes that Dante should become a doctor. Adding to their feud is Roland’s dismay at Dante’s rejection of his Filipino heritage. Dante hides his very traditional Filipino family from his American friends, Doug (Jason Schaal) and Rick (Brandon Martin).

Dante is also reluctant to participate in his sister, Rose’s (Bernadette Balagtas) 18th birthday party. Debutante parties, or cotillions, are a major rite of passage for girls in traditional Filipino families, but Dante considers it a trite tradition. Roland cannot afford to host the party in a fancy hotel, but he puts one together in a high school gym.

Dante’s coming of age story is formulaic – one could say that it is the Filipino version of John Hughes’ teen flicks that were so popular in the ’80s. Like any other teen, Dante does not get along with his parents, he struggles to find his niche and fit in, he meets a love interest in Annabelle (Joy Bisco). Conflict arises between him and childhood friend, Augusto (Darion Basco). He later sees everything in a new light.

What makes it original is the twists and turns that the Filipino-American culture brings to the story. Rose’s debutante ball is a cornucopia of an elaborate homemade banquet that is a feast to the eyes, traditional Filipino dance and music by Kayamanan ng Lahi Philippine Folk Arts, as well as hip-hop dances by Kaba Modern. Older Filipino-American viewers are also treated to an oldie-but-goodie song performed by Cruz, “Ikaw,” and the appearance of Filipino movie legend Eddie Garcia as the family patriarch, Lolo Carlos.

Cajayon and co-writer, John Manal Castro, also find humor in the social pretenses that come with an event such as Rose’s party. They even find a way to cover all aspects of clashing interactions between and within generations.

The kids get to show what they are made of in their hip-hop dances, in the basketball court and in their modified cars, while the adults get to gossip behind each other’s backs and dredge up old feuds between themselves. Most notable is Cruz’s performance as a tired man with a strong sense of responsibility to his family.

“The Debut” is a movie that is sure to please Filipino Americans of all generations, as well as moviegoers in general, with its universal themes of the pains of growing up, family conflict, and friendship.