John Denver Trending is about a Filipino high school boy (Jansen Magpusao). A classmate accuses him of stealing an iPad, he retaliates. Director and writer Arden Rod Cortez shows what seems like a schoolyard brawl in the province of Antique.
There, only half of the population there has internet access. But kids can record things on their cellphones, go to an internet café. And then they make John a province wide viral sensation. Cortez actually shows that process, score and all, but there’s something lo-fi and subtle about his approach. It makes his protagonist’s downfall seem more effectively menacing.
Because of this public shaming, John avoids school and instead spends time with his mother Marites Cabuncal (Meryll Soriano). Scenes with them make me grateful that festivals like Reel Asian exist. This is probably my first cinematic feature with characters speaking in Karaya and Hiligaynon, languages that even I can’t understand.
The feature also depicts the Hiligaynon culture, which seems like a departure from the pervasive impact of social media. But Cortez shows how both traditional and contemporary influences have this tendency to skew information. And therefore, they judge offenders, especially teens like John, more harshly than they should.
Our real lives now feel like there’s no rest from social media, but this feature offers a refuge from that. I can’t stop thinking about the scenes when John spends time with his mother. Or scenes with his siblings on the farm at night.
Cortez closes up on John, reflecting the nighttime firelight. These close-ups shows Magpusao’s talent in expressing the dreams. Ones he could hold on to if he gets out of this mess. He also expresses the fears he has and the decisions he has to make. Of facing consequences of a crime he might not have committed.
For more information on the other films screening at Reel Asian this year go to https://www.reelasian.com/festival-2/festival/.