Directed by Samantha Lee
Starring Zar Donato, Gabby Padilla, Beauty Gonzalez
It’s gratifying to note that, in the movies at least, LGBTQ people feel less and less apologetic about existing. That confidence to stake their claim is front and center in indie filmmaker Samantha Lee’s latest, Billie & Emma, which packages itself as a coming-of-age story, but is really more than that: Deep down inside, it is the unlikely successor of feminist films like Working Girls and Hinugot sa Langit—works that situate feminism, in all its forms, in the larger context of a society that alternately challenge and celebrate them.
I apologize if I made Billie & Emma out to be some feminist screed; it really isn’t. Unlike her previous feature Baka Bukas, writer-director Samantha Lee’s touch here is much lighter. It is the late ‘90s, and a rural all-girls high school gets its routines upended when a transplant from Manila named Billie (Zar Donato) arrives in the middle of the school year. At first there are intrigues about preferential treatment, what with her being the niece of the school’s religion teacher (Cielo Aquino). Those are soon eclipsed by whispers about the newcomer’s predilection for combining combat boots with the school uniform, and gossip about a confrontation with her aunt when the class tackles the question of homosexuality. But no one is more fascinated by Billie’s outsider status than Emma (Gabby Padilla), the student government president and A student, who is also an outsider under the skin: She is the daughter of the town-designated disgrasyada (Beauty Gonzalez, displaying her welcome comic timing), and she might be dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.
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Perhaps it’s because she’s not that far removed from her academic years, but Lee has the admirable talent for not talking down to her adolescent subjects. Even though her milieu is a backwater all-girls school, Lee makes it appear to contain worlds—because it does. There are intra-barkada squabbles and hilarious inter-clique jockeyings for primacy; there are ticklish school politics and thorny family dynamics. Through it all, we witness Billie’s refusal to apologize for who she is inspire Emma to do the same. And while there are character leaps in Lee’s screenplay that I could not take—there is a revelation about the religion teacher aunt that seems to come out of nowhere—it is refreshing to see her characters treated with the maturity and respect they deserve. Lee makes even the smallest of victories in Billie & Emma thrilling to witness.
Billie & Emma opens exclusively in Ayala Malls on Wednesday, March 20.