She's Dating the Gangster splits its story between two time periods. In present day, Kenneth (Daniel Padilla) is traveling to Legaspi, hoping to find his father Kenji (Richard Gomez) among the survivors of a plane crash. He's accompanied by Kelay (Kathryn Bernardo), who insists that her aunt Athena is actually Kenji's great love. As they travel, Kelay tells Kenneth their story. In the early nineties, a heartbroken Kenji (also played by Daniel Padilla) enlists the aid of Athena (Kathryn Bernardo) in the hopes of making his ex-girlfriend Abigail jealous. While the two don't really get along at first, their game of pretend turns into something real.
Most of the movie is made up of the scenes set in the nineties. And this is a good thing. In these scenes, the movie carries an affably silly, Technicolor energy that serves as a nice contrast to the overly serious romances that we tend to get from the mainstream. Mostly, that is. Inevitably, the film makes a bid for melodrama, and here it unravels quite a bit. Expert direction, however, from one of the great masters of our time, keeps things as bearable as the story reaches for a conclusion it can't quite justify.
The film's version of the nineties isn't what one would call realistic. Instead, it's a heightened fantasy colored by the romance of the story being told. Early detractors of this film bemoaned the use of the word "gangster" to describe Daniel Padilla's character, but the film itself seems fully aware of how silly it all is. This is a world as conceived entirely by teenagers, where every little crush is the end of the world, and the slightest bit of attitude might be construed as the appearance of a "gangster." The film plays with that amplified teenage perception, crafting a ridiculously colorful world of outsized emotions.
The film thus works best as a youthful little love story. The narrative dutifully builds up these characters as romantic ideals, playing out a love so simple and pure that it's easy to get swept up in all of it. But to its detriment, there's more to this movie than the outsized feelings that teens feel for each other. The story makes a bid for seriousness that really derails the flow of the story. Suddenly these young people are faced with choices that they really shouldn’t be making. Suddenly, this sweet little romance is weighed down by questions of mortality.
The narrative just can't support this pathos. The film begins to apply fantasy logic to really serious topics. In its most awkward moments, the movie treats relationships as a literal means of prolonging one’s life. This kind of magical thinking just doesn’t mesh well with the real medical terms that the film just trots out. To the film's credit, expert direction keeps it from flying off the rails. Cathy Garcia-Molina's tight control on the dramatics grounds the film even as it heads into absurdly sad territory. She also gets great, controlled performances from her cast. Daniel Padilla's strengths are used to great effect here, and Kathryn Bernardo manages to shine yet again.
She's Dating the Gangster is at its best when it allows kids to be kids. Its portrayal of young, intensely romantic love is really charming, especially placed as it is in this wacky conception of its period setting. It's a bit of a shame that the story had to try so hard to bring big, mortal choices into the picture. The bleak seriousness of the film's climactic moments clash heavily with its mostly colorful aesthetic. Still, the movie holds together long enough to entirely charming, if not entirely effective.