Toto is a story about Filipinos and the American Dream. The titular character (Sid Lucero) works as a room service attendant at a ritzy hotel, and he has no problem proposing marriage to American guests for the possibility of getting to the US. The film follows Toto as he tries various schemes to get himself a visa. He puts together fake families, takes risky loans, and dabbles in criminal endeavors. And this single-minded pursuit inevitably takes a toll on Toto and his relationships with the people he loves the most.
The pursuit of the dream of going abroad has always been fertile ground for our cinema. It is a national obsession after all, with generations of our citizens growing up believing that the only salvation is to be found abroad. For the most part, Toto tackles this subject with intelligence and grace, finding humor in the lengths to which people might go in order to attain that dream. But it doesn't quite go far enough. It gets a little soft hearted in the backend, reaching for resolutions that don't quite carry what has already been established.
The first half of the film moves like a breeze, quickly establishing exactly who Toto is and what he's willing to do to get to America. He worships at the altar of Tom Cruise, and fashions himself as the same kind of charming hustler that Cruise tended to play in his early career. And when his application for a visa is first denied, it's clear that Toto isn't going to let that get in the way of his dream. The schemes aren't actually all that interesting, but it's fun to see Toto try to charm his way through his problems. And there is real pathos in the way that he comes to ignore everything else as he chases the promise of America.
But the movie gets a little soft in the back half. It starts ignoring the consequences of Toto's actions as the story chases clean resolutions. It starts cheating a little, Toto getting away with a little too much for too little effort. The fun of this movie is in watching the main character squirm his way out of dilemmas. The second half basically puts that aside to deliver rote developments that it doesn't really earn. It's still pretty clever all in all, but it does feel like the film is cheating a little. It puts Toto’s salvation in the hands of another character, whose presence and outlook might actually be contradictory to the film’s themes.
Key in this film is the lead performance from Sid Lucero. This role really calls for a charming, magnetic presence, and Lucero has this in spades. The film doesn’t really do much visually, relying heavily on the actor’s performance to convey its ideas. Lucero, one of the best actors of his generation, doesn’t let anyone down. Thou Reyes, Mara Lopez, Neil Ryan Sese, Liza Diño, Bibeth Orteza, Bembol Roco, and Blake Boyd all help fill out a lively world of colorful characters.
Toto really does kind of fall apart in the end, the film just petering out as it contrives solutions for its character. It feels like the film loses its courage, eventually settling for simple lessons rather than fully satirizing the absurd lengths people might go to in order to make it abroad. In this way, Mark Meily’s La Visa Loca, which had its main character literally getting crucified for the sake of a visa, is a more interesting film. But in a few scenes, Toto smartly sketches out the dilemma of an entire generation of Filipinos, whose parents instilled them with dreams that can only be fulfilled in a faroff place.