‘Isa Pa, With Feelings’ boasts of another great performance by Carlo Aquino while gathering all of its scattered story elements together at the second half of the film to deliver a really strong finish. It takes a while before the film, directed by Prime Cruz, finds its bearings as the characters gets lost in the filmmaking.
There’s so much attention given to lead stars Maine Mendoza and Carlo Aquino that it struggles to get its footing. It opens with Maine Mendoza’s Mara, a junior architect at a firm who is about to take the licensure exam, and goes a little overboard in trying to sell us the idea that she’s sweet and cute and endearing. It’s a little hard sell because she already is, so the extra few minutes of her dancing around and the extreme closeups seem to underline what we already know and can see.
We see how important being an architect is to her and when she doesn’t pass the exam, her whole world falls apart. What gets her through this challenging time is her sign language teacher, Carlo Aquino’s Gali, a deaf man who also happens to be her neighbour.
In fact, the film is filled with so many of these coincidences that there is a contrived feeling to the set up. Mara’s niece is deaf so it encourages her to take sign language lessons. Her teacher happens to be Gali, who is her neighbour. She crashes into his car, which prompts a continued engagement outside of class and straight into their love story.
The first half of the movie feels confused and scattered. We are lead to believe that Mara’s path was to be an architect and all of a sudden it’s gone. We know that Gali wants to get a scholarship to a deaf school abroad, so he can return and provide better facilities to teach deaf children in the country.
But as their love story develops, Mara seems to refocus her life towards Gali, aside from the fact she owes him for crashing into his car, while Gali has now bartered Mara’s time to help him learn to dance in exchange for not having to pay for the damages of his car.
The sudden shift in Mara and Gali’s priorities creates this messy opening that is salvaged by Carlo Aquino’s spirited performance of Mara’s deaf language teacher. As Gali, Aquino is attentive and observant. His whole face and body come alive as he expresses himself through his hands and body. It is a performance so full of life and expression in a completely non-verbal role.
Maine Mendoza is a fully-committed actress and that might be her flaw. She always gives a hundred percent in every scene and it can overpower moments at times. Self-control and restraint can be picked up through experience, and more roles like this would refine her skills. She’s amazing in the emotional scenes where an outpouring of feelings is necessary, but in the quiet scenes or the transitory sequences, she can come in too strong. She’s charming as it is; she doesn’t have to punch it all the time.
But despite a messy first half, ‘Isa Pa, With Feelings’ really hits a home run by the second half when the film goes straight into romance territory and the relationship between Gali and Mara are tested. We are asked to forget that Mara was conflicted about being an architect and that it’s her father’s dream for her, as we are also asked to forget that she was to learn sign language for her niece (the niece doesn’t show up later in the film).
That’s all just set up because the film is really set into navigating the highs and lows of a relationship between a deaf person and a person who can hear. This is where Carlo Aquino truly shows how he is one of the most versatile and dynamic actors of his generation because he makes this so real. Director Prime Cruz even manages to bring us into his point-of-view and how Gali perceives the world and it makes me wish that the film stayed more in Gali’s perspective than it does in Mara’s.
Because while the movie follows Mara’s point-of-view and stays primarily with her, this is Gali’s movie. His past and his experiences, which includes a fantastic featured performance by Arci Munoz, has the greatest influence over the relationship of our lead characters. Their complications and struggles are defined by Gali’s fears and insecurities and when they are finally revealed at the final act of the film, Carlo Aquino makes it all so clear and understandable in a gorgeous solo scene that made me tear up and cry.
Because of its magnificent second and third act and Carlo Aquino’s great performance, ‘Isa Pa, With Feelings’ is a winner in my book. Its inclusive message that sheds light into the deaf community’s joys and challenges makes our world a richer place.