Writer and director Samantha Lee's sophomore feature film runs miles ahead from its predecessor, Baka Bukas. Set in the quaint provincial town of San Isidro, Billie and Emma tells the story of an ambitious teenage girl at the height of her high school life, when she suddenly faces having to lose it all after she finds out she's pregnant, and subsequently falls in love with the new kid at their all-girls school.
I believe there's a certain care that should be afforded to LGBT films precisely because this specific type of media, when it manages to reach a widespread audience, can make or break how the queer community is perceived, not just by the general masses but by queer people themselves. Are they being given proper representation? Are they more than just props this time to be baited for ratings? Are they shown to be human? Shown to feel love and a thousand other emotions just like anyone else? I came into Billie and Emma with these same questions in mind, and was thankfully not disappointed by the experience.
What I loved about the film...
1. It's more than just a queer story.
Oftentimes the sole plot point of LGBT films revolves around the characters' sexuality—who they are and how the story develops is completely defined by this one fact. Billie and Emma, on the other hand, endeavors for so much more. Instead of the usual coming out narrative, it talks of teenage pregnancy as well, of abortion, of a girl taking agency over her own body despite the many voices attempting to undermine her decisions. This is exactly the kinds of stories the LGBT community deserves, especially for the struggling youth still in the midst of discovering themselves; nuanced and eclectic narratives as seen through the queer lens.
2. It's a lighthearted LGBT movie.
Billie and Emma is a breath of fresh air from all the gloomy and dramatic queer movies we've seen time again. While it's definitely of essence to present the real problems that the community faces, rarely do we see queer characters get their happy ending without at least one getting killed off. The movie's comedic timing is impeccable, hitting all the right beats at the right moments and sending the audience into giggles, sometimes hysterical laughter even. Never have I been in a cinema filled with people so animated in their reactions, further proving the joy and validation positive representation brings.
3. The queer roles were played by actual queer actors.
After Samantha Lee placed an open call to queer actors to audition for her new movie, newcomer and openly lesbian actress Zar Donato, a film graduate, took hold of the opportunity and immediately contacted the director. What took fruit of Zar's leap of fate was a charmed performance raw and genuine in its portrayal. Here was a girl uprooted from everything that she knew, thrown out by her parents and forced into a distant small town simply because she loved in ways unfamiliar to them. If anyone can fully capture the experience of being shunned for who you are, to truly express the disorientation and confusion, the sudden need to hide yourself away in order to finally fit in, it's a queer actor. All these, Zar delivered with nuanced finesse. Cielo Aquino is also another openly queer actor in the film, who just so happens to play Billie's aunt, providing the character with the guidance and support she needs, and basically becoming the ideal parental figure every queer kid dreams of.
4. It has a charming cast.
Gabby Padilla's endearing performance as picture perfect Emma who comes of age in a contained, judgmental town, may well be a career making one. Her transition from wide-eyed, naive teenager, to a feisty, brave woman firm in her decisions is a development to behold. The charismatic young actress will have you falling for Emma by the first act, and rooting for her throughout the film. While straight, Gabby also admits the need for more queer roles by queer actors. "I do acknowledge that it could've been an opportunity for people from the LGBTQ+ community, but with characters like Billie, I think it is important to have queer actors," she tells Preview. "It's their time to represent their community; it's their time to tell their stories."
Special mention should also be given to Shara Dizon and Hannah Francisco, who play Emma's best friends in the movie, acting as its prime comedic driving force, along with Beauty Gonzales as Emma's free-spirited, and loving mother.
5. It captures a genuine love story.
The film's triumph rests in its drawn out conversations and painful silences all too real to resist. Sam gives her actors the space to bask in the awkwardness of first encounters in the library, to revel in the silence of two people anxiously lying beside each other, all the while falling in love in their heads, all the while not knowing what to do. Meanwhile, you as the viewer are made to the drown in these silences, to experience every beat with them, and to literally watch them and feel them fall in love.
What I didn't like about it...
Yes, the film has its faults, offering a few rushed and almost surreal resolutions by the third act, but nothing that can't be forgiven considering the comedic and light-hearted tone that the movie sets you up for by its start.
So should you watch it?
Billie and Emma is a light-hearted coming of age LGBT teen drama that doesn't neglect to tackle and address heavy, real-life issues. LGBTQ or not, this film, in my opinion, deserves your time and attention. Not only does it allow you to experience what queer people go through and understand why they deserve to be treated with equality and respect, it's also movies like this that will hopefully provide a gateway to more positive LGBT films in the future, if only enough people give it a chance.
Don't miss Billie and Emma, in select theaters until October 30 as part of the QCinema International Film Festival!