Movie Review for Third World Happy

On Melancholy and Doubt

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Third World Happy feels a little unsure of itself. On the outset, the film tries to tell a low-key personal story about regret and remembrance from the perspective of someone who left the country behind. But the film doesn’t quite trust the small fireworks of the story and buffers the silence with a large Hollywood style twist and plenty of too-clever dialogue. But even in its moments of doubt, the film reveals a heart that’s really trying to grasp at some truths, and that always makes for interesting viewing.

Wesley (Sam Milby) is an aspiring artist who works in a small gallery in the New York City. A death in the family brings him back to the Philippines, where he’s greeted by the remnants of a life he all but abandoned. He catches up with old friends, deals with family, and is confronted by an ex-girlfriend. Wesley slowly reconnects with the past he left behind, and in so doing, comes face to face with the pain that he’s caused others, and the pain he’s caused himself. All the while, Wesley postpones having to deal with his grief over the passing of someone he loves.

Third World Happy operates on a pretty strange wavelength, at least for a Filipino film. The film is melancholy, driven not by bursts of emotive drama, but by the general feeling that life hasn’t quite turned the way people expected it to. It’s tricky, sophisticated stuff, and for the most part, the film kind of pulls it off. Some of the dialogue is terribly overwritten, and its references to contemporary literature are a little bothersome. But as a whole, the film does a great job of capturing the strange alienation and general ennui that defines the worldview of the main character.

The story, however, is somewhat marred by an unnecessary twist. The plot could have probably functioned just as well if the information revealed in the twist was offered right from the very start. It feels like the story had to maneuver around its eventual revelation, and it just gets in the way of the storytelling. The reliance on a twist and the overwritten dialogue give away the film as the work of a first time filmmaker. Otherwise, the film is rather well made. Ogi Sugatan’s cinematography picks up on some lovely little details, and EJ Salcedo’s direction keeps the tone pretty steady throughout.

The cast performs admirably as well. Sam Milby is in the strange position of being a little too good looking to be taken seriously as an actor. But he does have chops, and he puts it to pretty good use at times. In Third World Happy, he does a good job of portraying his character’s inertia, playing up a recognizable inability to deal with his own emotions. He keeps it nicely low-key, and never tries to go beyond the film’s steady tone. He’s backed up by a wealth of talent. Jodi Sta. Maria, Archie Adamos, and Archie Alemania provide the color to Wesley’s melancholy outlook.

For better or worse, Third World Happy feels like something that might have come out of the Sundance lab. It has that American Indie feel, the film being a somewhat personal tale of ennui from the perspective of a young, middle-class person trying to break out of the grind of his everyday life. It generally avoids the pitfalls of melodrama and prefers to stay on the more introspective side of things. On the other hand, it’s also somewhat gimmicky, and the dialogue can at times feel overly precious. Still, it’s still a nice break from the outsized emotions of everyday cinema. And in moments, the film hits on small truths that outshine its pretenses.

My Rating:



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