Los Angeles Times

Written by Kevin Thomas

Gene Cajayon's The Debut takes us into the world of Filipino Americans to tell a universal coming-of-age story as illuminating as it is entertaining.

It is a professional work that requires no allowances from audiences and maintains a balance between humor and tension. At once funny and serious, it calls attention to an abundance of talent on both sides of the camera. Its title also applies to its makers, a terrific first film for Cajayon and his co-writer John Manal Castro.

Dante Basco stars as Ben Mercado, who lives with his parents and sister in a modest but comfortable home in a working-class neighborhood. Ben is an aspiring artist of promise who hangs out with his school pals Doug (Jayson Schaal) and Rick (Brandon Martin) and has turned his back on the Filipino American community. He is at odds with his father Roland (Tirso Cruz III), an immigrant postman who has struggled to help Ben enter UCLA on a premed scholarship. But Ben has just tapped his life savings to attend Cal Arts and is about to tell his father what he's done.

In the meantime, the Mercado family is focused on the 18th- birthday party of daughter Rose (Bernadette Balagtas), to be held in the gym of the local Catholic school since the Mercados can't afford a debutante ball at a fancy hotel. Doug, Rick and Ben have another party lined up on the same Saturday night, but Ben knows he must put in an appearance at his sister's party.

Cajayon and Castro poke gentle fun at some social pretensions the event brings out, but they also celebrate the spirit of the occasion. The lovely Rose has inspired family and friends to come up with party decorations that are nifty without being costly, and the banquet of Filipino food is a feast to behold. The event becomes a showcase for traditional Filipino song and dance, and later when a DJ takes over for the kids, it becomes a dazzling cornucopia of music embracing pop, hip-hop, R&B and alternative rock. (The film's vibrant score was composed by Wendell Yuponce.)

During the evening Ben is confronted with the need to work out his sense of identity, and better understand why his father is harsh and arbitrary. He discovers potential romance with his sister's best friend Annabelle (Joy Bisco), a vivacious beauty and sensational dancer trying to break off with the thuggish Augusto (Darion Basco) who had been close to Ben when they were children.

In Ben and Roland, and in Roland and his father Carlos (Eddie Garcia, a Filipino cinema legend with a half-century career) we discover eternal father-and-son conflicts intensified by the immigrant experience that often opens a cultural chasm between generations. Cajayon has inspired a screenful of engaging portrayals and performances of considerable complexity from Dante Basco and Tirso Cruz III. Cruz's Roland elicits both exasperation and compassion for his closed-minded, heavy-handed treatment of his son. His Roland is a worn man in his 40s who's admirable in his sense of responsibility to his family and his devotion to his wife Gina (Gina Alajar), the family peacekeeper. Well-photographed by Hisham Abed, The Debut is a winner all around.