The best thing about it is that it got made. Star Cinema, the most mainstream of movie studios in the country, lagged behind the so-called gay bandwagon, perhaps by strict design: It's not supposed to be their territory. Homosexuality, believed to be a niche concern, presumably falls outside the realm of Star Cinema's broad, PG-13 market. Yet by some dint of miracle, it casts Vilma Santos, one of the biggest stars ever, and a present provincial governor no less, in the main role of a mother to a gay son, played by Luis Manzano, Santos' real life son. And then, oh boy, in the role of Manzano's lover, the country's current most bankable romantic leading man, John Lloyd Cruz. It's directed by Olivia Lamasan, whose female-centered melodramas have come to emblematize the Star Cinema brand. With such trusted names, is there still reason for the public to shy away from the gay topic?
The uncanny hat-trick of In My Life is that the bandwagon it jumps is not the gay one, but still the female-centered family melodrama that Star Cinema helped galvanize, and also the OFW movie -- a drama mapping the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers and their families -- perhaps one of only two originally Filipino genres to emerge from our lifetime. (The other one is the macho dancer movie.) This one is largely set in New York City, and it's centrally the woman's story, with the gay elements tempered and almost subliminal. That is the film's winning strategy, but also its debilitating blind spot.
What suffers is specificity. What do we know of the two guys' relationship? Most of it is left to the imagination, or, more accurately, to That Which We Know But Never Show Or Talk About. Is their relationship even sexual? The film's one kiss, which arrives late in the movie, is a swift, barely-brushed lip-to-limp. It's also meant to express apology and forgiveness -- you know, the wholesome, Catholic facet of love. It's hard for me to muster enough love for a movie that's intentionally castrated and guilty.
But it's not just the sex that's missing. I vaguely get to understand the lives of these two gay men in New York City. For example, what is Mark's job and why is he so damn busy? There's also a gay bar, but we barely see what goes on there, or what the interior even looks like. And the ultimate missing information: Is Noel gay, bi, confused, pretending, or maybe just another straight guy who happens to love a gay guy? It's up to the viewer to decide; Your Mom might have a different opinion than you. Cruz's family-friendly persona is spared of the damage. Not to give away spoilers, but he does end up quite a chaste man by film's end. All's well in the happy sin-free world, where only one of two things can happen to a gay man: He either dies violently or just stops being gay.
Of course, John Lloyd Cruz as Noel is the archetypal leading man of Star Cinema: a man who loves unconditionally, who suffers for his love, who also happens to be devoted to his parents. He's predictably given moments to bare his heart out. But Manzano as Mark is the more interesting creation. He'd rather go to the gym than spend time with his Mom, and he makes that strange proposal to her (I won't give away the surprise), tapping into a son who's both practical and caring, tough and sweet. Plus, with all that missing sex in the movie, Manzano manages to hint at someone who's comfortable with it, next to Cruz's somewhat frozen take on man-to-man touching.
But what little gay moments that are permitted to slip through are strong. In one scene, Shirley (Santos) complains that her son never even "came out" to her. In defense, Mark points out the double standard: If his straight siblings were never obligated to declare their straightness, why should he announce his gayness? Lamasan's co-writers, Raymond Lee and Senedy Que, are minds behind two of the most progressive queer films of our time. (Lee produced Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros; Que wrote and directed Dose.) Like those films, In My Life belies a fierce intelligence, wisdom that comes from a place of experience, at least whenever it's allowed. The film's most special move is that it roots Mark's anxiety -- He's never good enough for Mom -- to that moment in adolescence when he felt his homosexuality was a disappointment.
Like that scene, the best moments in the film are those which meld specific personal experience to the anyone-can-relate universal -- which is really the aim of the genre of melodrama. Santos may be a mother to a gay son, but she's really just any parent who wants to say sorry for her mistakes. Dimples Romana, in a great supporting performance, is any daughter (or son) who felt like a failure.
But the makers don't know when to ease up on the melodramatic conventions, which stall the movie here and there. Shirley's journey is marked with obvious, rigid plotpoints. She spends the first part whining about America with a capital A, then finds mini-success as a career woman, complete with feel-good montage. There's an old-fashioned, weary mannerism to Lamasan's approach, not helped by her visual team. New York is a flat, gray city in the eyes of cinematographer Charlie Peralta, and lifeless and generic according to production designer Elfren Vibar.
Somewhere in this movie is a shining work of art, but it's shrouded in mediocrity.