The landscape of recent local cinema, be it mainstream or indie, is dominated by adult themes with a preponderance of sex or violence, usually with foul language. There is a challenge to come up with quality films for teenagers which tackle their issues of growing up, without having to resort to easy standby tropes like cliche puppy romances or silly slapstick comedy. Written and directed by Maricel Cabrera-Cariaga, "Children of the River" precisely answered that pressing need.
This was a story about four friends. Elias was the smart responsible son. Pepsy was the bossy tomboy. Agol was the gentle giant. Robin was the frustrated lover boy. They were all children in their early teens who lived in an isolated community for soldiers, while their fathers were away fighting in the Marawi siege. While they lived in constant fear that each day could be their fathers' last, but they were still were very much teens enjoying growing up and discovering themselves.
The four young actors playing the four friends were all very natural in their performances.
Even at 14 years of age, Noel Comia Jr. is already quite the veteran actor. He had, in fact, already won the Best Actor award in Cinemalaya for portraying the title role of "Kiko Boksingero" in 2017. Comia bravely played the tricky role of Elias with such subtle sensitivity that we never saw it coming. This role could have been played all sorts of wrong by amateurs, but Comia played it just right. We also get to see Comia's guitar-plucking skills and hear him sing the films two original songs "Ikaw Na" and "Maghihintay," both composed and arranged by no less than the multi-talented writer-director herself.
I had seen Junyka Santarin before as a stage actress tackling the daring role of child abuse victim in Red Turnips' "The Nether." She had maturity beyond her years even back then, and the same was true this time as Pepsy, who acted as the elder sister of their gang.
Ricky Oriarte and Dave Francis were both in their first film roles here, but they showed no awkwardness nor nervousness in their very disarming portrayals of the ever-hungry Agol and the rascally Robin. Their "talado" scene at the faith healer with the egg was hilarious.
Juancho Trivino played Ted, an attractive college guy who stayed over with the kids for a few weeks, triggering some significant reactions. Rich Asuncion played Elvy, the steadfast mother of Elias. Jay Manalo only appeared towards the end as Capt. Manabat, but he was such a powerful presence on that screen. I am sure there was not a single dry eye in the theater during his emotional monologue in front of the families. I bet he could be up for Best Supporting Actor for that single scene alone.
In this age when shock and scandal rule mass and social media, Cabrera-Cariaga has crafted a rare gem -- a coming of age tale of military children told in a most straightforward, sincerely real, positively uplifting way, with no cheap sentimentality or sappy melodrama.
With the refreshing river scenery of Quirino province as backdrop, "Children of the River" proved to us that an indie film need not have to be bloody, noisy, dark, dirty, perverse or profane to be current, interesting and outstanding.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."