Netflix’s first Filipino film Dead Kids, inspired by a true story, tells the story of four high schoolers plotting to kidnap their classmate, the school’s rich bully, for a ransom of P30 million.
Their scheme may seem doomed from the start, but the film tries to balance the crime thriller aspect with a coming of age drama. And unfortunately, it doesn’t quite give either full justice. Possibly the biggest reason being you just can’t do so in 90 minutes.
Many an internationally acclaimed Filipino film have tackled the issues of poverty, corruption from by all reaches of government, drugs, and growing class divide. Dead Kids touches on all of that in a refreshing way since it is packaged with typical high school angst and drama.
Certainly not new territory for a Netflix product, but different from the usual Filipino offerings. That it focuses on teens rather than the desperate mother trying to feed her family by dealing drugs or the corrupt police chief protecting the druglords is already a positive difference.
The film also has a tinge of dark comedy much of the time. That too contrasts with the typical just plain dark and sometimes morbid hopelessness the usual film festival-favorite Filipino movies about the downtrodden of society.
The gang we follow for the entirety of the movie isn’t necessarily a group of bumbling idiots. But our four main characters initially come across as underdog misfits just trying to level the playing field in a corrupt and increasingly unfair society. Their high school serving as a microcosm of the world outside the walls. At one point in the film, one of them mentions that he would return home to the province once he gets his cut of the ransom money as he has grown sick of the Metro.
While the four guys make a good enough impression to make you care about them and their doomed plan to get you to the end, Dead Kids only offers glimpses into their personal lives. You’re certainly not going to get deep into their backstories in a 90-minute film. But that only helps make the case for the story to have been a limited series instead.
The film only touches the surface of what our four main misfits have rooted deep inside. Emotional and personal issues that absolutely could be better and more fully explored in a longer form.
For example, while Charles Blanco (Vance Larena) is the most interesting character, save for one scene where he unleashes his frustration, we don’t get a clear picture of the extent of his feeling aggrieved. There’s some exposition throughout the film. But when the film’s climax arrives, you are really made to fill in the blanks about where he is coming from instead of having a full understanding of why he does what he does.
Meanwhile, we understand Mark Sta. Maria (Kelvin Miranda) is roughing it alone in the big city while his family is back in the province putting all their hopes and dreams on him, not knowing how difficult it truly is for him. His character is definitely a typical archetype. A poor, but smart and talented guy who is able to attend a reasonably fancy, posh school for the elite. His social status, however, fodder for the condescending treatment by the upper-class bullies. But again, we don’t really see how aggrieved he is either. And how that, coupled with his family’s money troubles and failures in general may drive him to have accepted the initial scheme in the first place.
With Gideon Uy (Jan Silverio), there’s numerous references to his sexuality, perhaps only as a joke, but maybe perhaps deeper. We would never know as he disappears for the last third of the movie even. And Paolo Gabriel (Khalil Ramos) merely comes across as a stoner-like, happy-go-lucky guy with a girlfriend.
The bully-turned-victim (which itself could be an interesting thing to explore) Chuck Santos (Markus Paterson) is a by-the-numbers rich kid bully. But a longer opportunity could also allow a deeper dive into his own story too. Janina (a terribly underused Sue Ramirez), as Chuck’s girlfriend and the object of Mark’s silent affections, is absolutely wasted and almost a non-entity when really she too could be a bigger catalyst to the main events of the story. Yssa (Gabby Padilla) is Paolo’s girlfriend who also only pops up as a relevant character in the final third.
Still, the main focus, even in a would-be series should be on the four. And there’s plenty of potential material there for the talented group of guys to have worked with. Vance Larena, getting the meatiest material in the film, shines while Kelvin Miranda does his best with what he’s given. Both of them as well as Khalil Ramos and Jan Silverio are able to carry the film with their performances and natural rapport that, again, gets you to be interested enough in them and their scheme, but leaves you disappointed that you didn’t see more from them.
Mikhail Red is definitely a talented director and he is able to create a slightly more polished and slick look to the usual dark, gritty, tight spaces featured in similar films about the Philippines’ class divide.
The film is far from perfect, but it is an easy watch. The overall takeaway from Dead Kids, however, is that there is absolutely great potential in it being reimagined as a limited series/miniseries. Same cast, same plot, same aesthetic. But with a deeper and more well-rounded take on the main characters.
Dead Kids also shows how much potential there is in Filipino filmmaking as well where the choices don’t have to be only between low-brow mainstream comedies or dark, gritty indie films. There’s plenty of room in the middle and Dead Kids at the very least helps remind people of that.