I America follows Erica Berry (Bela Padilla), a young woman from Olongapo who occasionally works as a model and a commercial talent. She’s just managed to get in touch with her American father, John Berry (Rob Rownd), who seems to really want to do right by her. When Erica goes looking for her birth certificate, she finds out that John may not be her father after all. This is becomes a real problem when John shows up at her house, all but ready to take her back to America. In spite of her many reservations, she keeps up the pretense of being his daughter, and tries to help him in his quest to reunite with another daughter he had left behind.
The movie wants to cover a lot of ground, and it doesn’t always have the capacity to do it well. There is simple merit to exploring the lives of the children left behind in Olongapo. The film does get a lot out of a strange sense of community between Erica and her fellow half-Americans. They are a family of abandoned children, looking for fathers that may not know they exist, or may not even care at all. If any one of them manages to actually make contact, he or she becomes a lifeline, a ray of hope that these fathers who have never been around might still be within reach.
The film is smart enough to recognize all the imbalances at play. It’s smart enough to see that Erica can be privilege in a strange sort of way, her fair skin allowing her opportunities unavailable to her darker friends. This young woman’s search for identity is couched in complex post-colonial ideas, the father figure she’s longed for eventually reverting to his role as oppressor when things start getting difficult for him. In its most lucid moments, the film seems to suggest something much grander than what is eventually conveyed in the messy narrative.
The story just tries to hit too many points. There is a distinct lack of discipline in scenes, many of which go on for far too long. The film is often funny, but it tends to wear out the joke. There are a lot of good comedic premises in here, but it would have likely benefitted the film to just choose better. It didn’t need everything in there. A little bit of focus might have made the comedy shine brighter. When the film gets a little quieter, one really comes to understand the struggles of these characters. It just gets drowned out in noise a little too often.
But the film has got quite a few things going for it. Carlo Mendoza’s handheld lensing is terrific. Some of the film’s compositions are breathtaking, even when confined indoors. Bela Padilla is pretty good in the lead role. There is something a little off about the Pidgin English that her character speaks, but she nails the big moments. The inner turmoil of her character is never far from the surface, the actress able to make all of it palpable. Elizabeth Oropesa is also great in this movie. The supporting cast can be hit or miss, but the hits are pretty strong.
Restraint can be an overpraised quality in cinema. It can sometimes indicate a lack of commitment or artistic courage. But in the case of I America, it feels like something that is sorely needed. There are so good ideas in it, so many glimpses of greatness. But the film lacks the focus to turn that multitude of half-formed assets into one cohesive piece of dramatic cinema. There is so much potential here, and it is easy enough to appreciate the youthful energy that this movie brings. But it just falls short of being truly memorable.