For about two-thirds of its runtime, English Only, Please mines real emotion out of what is by all appearances a predictable romcom premise. It involves heartbroken Filipino-American Julian (Derek Ramsay). He has prepared a speech for an ex-girlfriend, and he wants it translated into Filipino. Enter freelance English tutor Tere (Jennylyn Mercado), who he hires over the Internet. Though Julian is cold at first, Tere wins him over with her dedication. And when the two bond over mutual heartbreak, they begin spending time together outside of their arrangement, and develop feelings beyond friendship.
It all fits cleanly in the established romantic comedy formula, and it should all be pretty predictable. But the film proves for over an hour that the formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It builds a strong foundation of characters, the film taking the time to let us understand who they are as human beings. Tere is nurturing to a fault. Julian has never really gotten over his mother leaving. The movie builds a rapport between its two main players fairly naturally, never forcing the issue by building contrived scenarios that make them love each other. It’s a strong application of a familiar framework, and for a good long while, the film is beautifully light and charming.
But the film doesn’t quite overcome the final hurdle of the romantic comedy formula. It is never enough for a couple to fall in love in one of these movies. At one point, there has to be some sort of crisis that pulls them apart. This is supposed to lead into a third when one of the characters has to make some kind of choice, and put in some effort to win the other back. And this is where the film falters. It struggles to find an organic way for keep the two apart, and ends up rushing a problem that feels pretty unreasonable.
It doesn’t undo the magic of the previous two acts, but it’s enough of a flaw that it’s worth discussing. The conflict can be described as perfunctory at best. It is the kind of problem that could be resolved by the two characters talking to each other, and the film is forced to contrive ways to keep them from doing just that. The film manages to make it feel in character at least, but it still feels pretty illogical. It’s especially frustrating because this conflict springs from one of the best scenes in the movie. The film delivers a great dramatic crescendo and kind of squanders it with its limp third act.
But it’s no great sacrifice to sit through a subpar final portion when the rest of the movie is so good. It keeps a nice, lighthearted tone, and finds plenty of laughs that mine the silliness of life in the Philippines. It eschews big comedic set pieces in favor of an accumulation of observational jokes. Like the way the characters keep using EDSA traffic as a catchall excuse. Derek Ramsay, who has been mainly used in movies as a prize for women for fight over, proves to be more compelling when his role gives him agency. Jennylyn Mercado is bright and bubbly as Tere, and she is completely charming.
English Only, Please is still a pretty good movie. The third act, though not rising to the high level set by the previous two acts, isn’t so terrible that it ruins the entire experience. It still has those two winning leads. It still carries that same lighthearted tone. The movie just falls short of being great, of being something that truly stands apart from the dozen or so romcoms that are produced here every year. It’s good, but one can easily imagine how much better it could be.