From the opening scene alone, writer and director Jason Paul Laxamana should have leaned into the campiness of his new film ‘Just a Stranger’. Anne Curtis’ Mae enters a church in midday wearing black, fancy clothes and enters the confessional booth to confess. The church is empty but there is a priest inside just waiting to hear her story, which propels us into the background of her affair with a younger man, Marco Gumabao’s Jericho.
The whole beginning — from the setting, the narrative setup, and the dialogue — feels contrived and this carries over throughout the film. The confession begins in Lisbon, Portugal for no other reason than to put the story into a foreign place, which has become part and parcel of many romantic movies we’ve seen in the past five years (or even ten years). Mae is just visiting with friends while Jericho has been living there for a year because his father is the Philippine ambassador to Portugal.
This doesn’t really do much for the story other than give it an exotic vibe as Mae and Jericho tease each other about their ages; she being too old and he being too young. This is the other major contrived element of the film because Jericho is 19 going on 20 while the older Mae never really reveals her age. This becomes problematic because Anne Curtis does not look like the “lola” or the “tita” that she is being teased for and neither does Marco Gumabao look 19 or 20 to be as childish/totoy as the film’s script tries to paint him as (in fact, a quick search online shows that Gumabao is 25, which he really looks).
On a casting point alone, the film asks you to look at this couple as if there’s something taboo about their age difference but visually, onscreen they don’t look that far apart. As wonderful an actress as Anne is, it doesn’t make sense to paint her as a tita nor should there be anything illicit about having an affair with Marco Gumabao’s Jericho, who doesn’t at all look like he’s turning 20 no matter how hard he tries to act young.
What further complicates their relationship is that they are both committed to other people.
The film then tries its best to put the two characters together and gives them every reason to fall into each other’s arms She is in an unhappy marriage and his whole life is controlled by his parents and his girlfriend and the people around him.
The film is at its most interesting when it is focused on Jericho’s angst. The moments when the manifestations of his youth — his inability to stand up to his parents — conflict with what Mae needs from him, which is to be an adult. This is, what I feel, the crux of the movie: that their desire for one another becomes a catalyst for change in their lives.
But the film never really dwells there. While Jericho’s character finds an arc, the more prominent character of Mae never seems to rise above her need for a man. Never does the film really explore her own personal desires. We don’t ever get to really glimpse into who Mae is outside of her relationship with Jericho and her husband Phil.
Anne Curtis is a wonderful actress and she’s proven it in her last few films from ‘Sid & Aya: Not a Love Story’ and ‘Buy Bust’ and ‘Aurora’ but even she finds difficulty creating something out of the hollow character that is Mae. No amount of maturity she imbibes Mae with can make the character rise from what she’s given in the script. She shows us again her skill to get really vulnerable at the latter part of the movie when her character has more to draw from, which only comes from what has transpired before.
Even usually amazing actors like Edu Manzano, Ana Abad Santos, Robert Sena, and Cherie Gil can’t find their footing with characters that merely service the plot rather than a real, breathing world. ‘Just a Stranger’ exists merely to highlight Mae and Jericho’s relationship, giving Mae every reason to need someone from her reasons to getting married to Phil in the first place to having a condition like FMS or fibromyalgia syndrome, which again does nothing for Mae’s character or the story except to make her need someone to care for her.
‘Just a Stranger’ could have benefitted from leaning into its melodrama narrative and veering into camp territory, which it does quite often with Anne Curtis’ conversation with the priest (which elicited quite a lot of laughs) and from every excuse to take off Marco Gumabao’s clothes. Had it not taken itself too seriously, ‘Just a Stranger’ could have covered more ground and allowed the actors to just play rather than approach the material so close to the hilt.
Jason Paul Laxama has done great work with ‘Between Maybes’ and ‘To Love Some Buddy’ but this feels like a step back.