Where ‘Rekorder’ and ‘NeoManila’ showed us the potential of director Mikhail Red’s capabilities as a storyteller with an insightful point-of-view to the class struggles that bog down Filipino society, his latest film ‘Dead Kids’ proves to us that he’s mastered his craft and can execute his creative vision with razor-like precision.
Because ‘Dead Kids’ is a marvel that I wish I got to see on the big screen. It’s dreamy, sometimes neon flourish, depiction of student life in a private school side steps back-and-forth between the authentic high school experience and the glossy, hyper-real elements of its genre. Make no mistake, ‘Dead Kids’ is in every which way a thriller but it’s also funny as much as it is a biting social commentary of how great the class divide is and the unwanted burden it puts on young people who are desperately just trying to stay afloat.
The film centers around Mark Sta. Maria, a scholar from the province who is struggling to pay rent, who is bullied by the popular kid Chuck Santos, who is also “cock-blocking” Mark from getting closer to Janina, a classmate who dreams of becoming an actress. Through Mark’s eyes, we see how disruptive and abusive Chuck Santos is at school, and other people notice it too.
Bring in Blanco, Paolo (and his girlfriend Yssa), and Uy, who invite Mark to join them in their plan to kidnap Chuck for a ransom of 30 million pesos. After all, Chuck’s dad is a drug lord and they know this because Blanco’s policeman cop is under Chuck’s dad’s payroll.
It’s a complicated mess but Mikhail Red manages to breeze through the narrative without overcomplicating the details so that it can really focus on the story, how the choices of these bullied kids change their lives and push them over the edge.
In the craziness of high school boys’ posturing, acting and talking tough, lies the broken people who would go this far to prove a point. For Blanco, Uy, and Paolo, it’s not just about the money. They don’t really need it but for Mark Sta. Maria, the money is the thing. And that’s what makes ‘Dead Kids’ so powerful because while it is a commentary on how the youth deal with each other and how they see the world, it’s also a commentary on the haves and have-nots of this world.
Leading the pack is Kelvin Miranda, playing Mark Sta Maria as a mopey and dour kid. He does a fine enough job but gets easily swallowed by the better performing co-stars in the ensemble. It’s hard because Khalil Ramos, who plays Paolo, does mopey and intense with much more texture and nuance, but it’s fun to see him play the wacky comedic one in the group. Sue Ramirez plays Janina as if she’s about to have a breakthrough moment at every turn and then loses her nerve at the last minute. It’s a lovely portrayal of the role that is punctuated by a strong finale scene.
But the real standouts here are Vance Larena as Blanco and Gabby Padilla as Yssa. Padilla is effortless as the rich kid Yssa, creating layers upon layers in her performance that you can’t take your eyes off of her. There is something beneath that cool facade and when it breaks, Padilla serves just the right amount of emotion to send the message home. Whereas Padilla’s performance is an exercise in building walls that hint at something deeper, Larena’s performance is the opposite; it’s about a character who is turning inside-out. He is gruff and brusque and hard but as the film continues to unfold and the repercussions of their actions start to arise, Larena’s Blanco is unraveling in the most interesting of ways. It’s raw, uncontrolled emotion and it really drives the point across.
‘Dead Kids’ is slick and smart and precise and it really shows off Mikhail Red’s perceptive eye into our society and gives us an engaging and entertaining look into the darkest corners of our psyche. Without ever having to underline it, ‘Dead Kids’ is showing us what our current world, and the world that is displayed in our newspaper’s headlines, has done to our kids.