Cinemalaya review: 'John Denver Trending' delivers powerful message on bullying

Fred Hawson

Posted at Aug 09 2019 12:51 PM

Sta. Ines Catholic High School Grade 8 student John Denver Cabungcal got into a fight with his classmate Mark, who wrongly accused him of stealing his iPad while it was charging in the classroom.

An incriminating video of this fight and photos of Mark's swollen face were immediately uploaded by another classmate, Carlos, on Facebook, complete with an angry, inciting message.

The post promptly became viral locally and later throughout the country, making poor John Denver a hated nationwide villain.

Only his mother, Marites, steadfastly stood by his side to defend his honor.

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This grim story was set in the town of Pandan in the province of Antique. The dialogue was all in the local dialect of Antique, Kinaray-a. This was only the second such film I had seen, the first being "Tuos" which was also an entry in Cinemalaya back in 2016.

Meryll Soriano (as Marites) was the only well-known actress in the cast. The rest were probably local actors in the area, which gave this film a very natural and realistic feel and a much stronger impact.

Despite what the title might suggest, this is definitely not a light film. In "John Denver," the dark serious feels were persistent from beginning to end.

This film makes you feel so helpless and so furious that these cruel things were happening to a young kid. Kids should never be subject to such brutal bullying not only from fellow kids, but also from adults -- and worse, adults in authority. Cyberbullying is even more terrible since these hurtful words can come from all over the country, and even the world.

Soriano played Marites as a strong woman who worked hard to raise her family of three kids on her own, while her husband was away on his military duties. She spoke Kinaray-a like a native in those long lines of her character as she stood by the words of her son, John Denver, as the only version of the truth she accepted.

As a parent, I stand by her conviction and wish I could match her fortitude and boldness in defending her son when the time comes. It was likewise bothersome how the parent is always the last to know.

Newbie actor Jansen Magpusao is a revelation in the lead role of John Denver, a regular kid given to occasional misdemeanors. His character was not one of many words -- he would keep his problems to himself so as not to bother and add more concerns to his harried mother -- so mostly it was only his face which had to convey the turmoil of emotions within him.

Fortunately, the camera loves the 15-year old's expressive face, and the angles and lighting made his silent close-ups so poignant. His inexperience is occasionally betrayed by some awkward line delivery -- however, in this case, it actually enhanced the film's authenticity.

Everything that could go wrong in a case like this was explored. The most maddening scene was that when the video statement of copra farmer Mang Mando (Glenn Mas) was digitally manipulated to seal John Denver's fate. The most chilling scene was that one-on-one confrontation scene where police officer SPO1 Rolando Corpus (Sammy Rubido) was intimidating and coercing John Denver to confess to something he never did.

This film was indeed a very powerful and timely statement against bullying -- physically and verbally in person, or virtually online. It talked about the dangerous power of social media in shaping public perception and opinion with biased news or worse, fake news, and its unrelenting negative consequences for the victim involved.

New director Arden Rod Condez approached the topic with utmost severity of focus. Several prior scenes may have been foreshadowing the ending, but it will still knock your breath away.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."