Currently being shown as part of the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino is "Star na si Van Damme Stallone," about a simple Filipino family and how they coped with the daily challenge of having a child with Down Syndrome, which was first shown during the 2016 CineFilipino film festival. It won 3rd Best Picture (behind "Ned's Project" and "Sakaling Hindi Makarating"). Lead actress Candy Pangilinan won Best Actress (in a tie with Angeli Bayani for "Ned's Project"), while child actor Isaac Aguirre won Best Supporting Actor.
It is New Year's Eve and Nadia Zamora just gave birth to a child with Down's Syndrome. She thought it was the end of her world. Upon her acceptance of her blessing, Nadia named him after her two favorite action stars. Growing up with his patient older brother Tano, Vanvan went to school in the class of his cheerful godmother Ms. Cecille Mariquit as his teacher. He was also loved and defended by his pretty classmate Jessica, on whom Tano had a crush. After having a part in a fun, well-received school play, Vanvan decided he wanted to become an actor. Nadia and the whole family supported his one dream.
I know Candy Pangilinan more as a funny comedienne. She played it serious here and came up with an affecting (and award-winning) performance as Vanvan's "ermat" (or mother) Nadia. In the course of this challenging role, Pangilinan skillfully tread the delicate line between personal despair and unconditional maternal love. Her moment of epiphany and acceptance came after a very tense scene of extreme mental torment from which she fortunately snapped out of in time. Her restraint did her very well here.
We see the challenge of how an older brother would deal with a special younger brother. Instead of just going to school and playing with friends, Tano would have to help take care of Vanvan, and protect him from bullies in the neighborhood. He also had to contend with their mother's impatience and demands, which can be too much for a young boy to understand and accept. Kid Tano was played with impressive sensitivity by Isaac Aguirre, who certainly deserved the award he won. Adult Tano was played by Acey Aguilar, but his role was largely in the background by then.
The other supportive people around Vanvan were played with sincerity by their respective actors: Sarah Brakensiek as friendly Ms. Mariquit, Junyka Sigrid Santarin (who was so good on stage in "The Nether") as outspoken Kid Jessica. Mara Marasigan as Adult Jessica, Erlinda Villalobos as Vanvan's grandmother Ditas and Ebong Joson as Vanvan's long-estranged father Jim who wanted to make up for lost time. Vanvan's favorite actress on TV is Jasmine Curtis Smith, do you think he will get to see her in person?
The title role of Van Damme Stallone at different ages was played by young people with Down's syndrome. Edelmira Mattea Curativo was the baby Vanvan and Jeremiel Austria was the Toddler Vanvan. The main featured actors were Jadford Dilanco who played the Kid Vanvan, while Paolo Pingol who played the adult Vanvan.
With these delightful actors, director Randolph Longjas (with a script by Alpha Habon) was able to show how a child with Down's Syndrome could be a source of joy and comfort for his family. Every scene with Vanvan (at all ages) inexplicably filled me up with both heartbreaking and heartwarming emotion. Even a simple quiet scene of Vanvan struggling to button down his shirt and eventually succeeding could make you shed happy tears. Do not leave right away after the end credits roll, as there is one more touching scene to remember Vanvan by. Sentimental yes, but never melodramatic. 9/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."