billie & emma (& other stories)

Manila, 24 March—Finally caught the Glorietta screening of Samantha Lee’s “Billie & Emma”, which is currently being screened in Ayala Malls after last year’s successful run at the QCinema International Film Festival.

Warning: Spoilers follow!

The movie, set in the mid-90’s, follows Billie, a transferee student from Manila, and Emma, a star student at an all-girls school in rural San Isidro, where Billie was exiled to be with her aunt for being a troublemaker. It’s hard enough being a new girl in high school—so much harder when you fall in love with the head girl in charge. Things get even more complicated when Emma finds out she’s pregnant right in the middle of the school year.

Zar Donato delivers a charming and heartfelt portrayal of Billie, who falls in love with the ambitious Emma, played by equally charming and relatable Gabby Padilla.

I liked this film because its girls really perform well together: openly queer actor Donato confidently and earnestly brings Billie to life as a young queer person trying to make it out of high school, while Padilla’s Emma is smart, headstrong and unafraid, both in the face of bigger responsibilities, misogyny, authorities and, well, falling in love.

Donato and Padilla are supported by a fantastic ensemble as well: Cielo Aquino as Billie’s queer single aunt and Beauty Gonzales as Emma’s young, single mom are caring and comforting adult women figures, while the young actresses who play Emma’s posse Twinkle and Honey likewise stood out for their comedic pulse and timing. Super loved that slow mo’ all-girl brawl in the patio, and that hilarious #JusticeForEmma lightning rally they staged during flag ceremony.

Also: The lack of male characters is refreshing. Throughout the film, only one figures prominently: Emma’s caricature of a boyfriend Miguel, who is always depicted on-screen as a teenager playing Brick Game. (BRICK GAME!!!)

Speaking of brick game: Loved all of the 90s references scattered throughout the film—Billie owns a Discman and listens to Firewoman when Barbie Almalbis was still with Hungry Young Poets, Emma has a crush on Chubi del Rosario, and Twinkle and Honey join their town’s talent show by dancing to the Macarena. The film spoke to me clearly throughout.

The film was so beautifully shot, too. It had all the appropriate lesbian things: Bicycle rides, rolling hills, Doc Martens boots, Birkenstocks, plaid polos, school uniforms, discreet note-passing in hallways and class, a picnic under a tree by a lake, guitar playing on window sills, shared earphones while listening to music while lying on the floor, Barbie Almalbis. It was tender and familiar in all the right places.

I also liked how they approached Emma’s pregnancy—less blaming, more future-facing. The discussion about pregnancy on campus and expulsion is a necessary conversation. Padilla also shone in her scenes with Gonzales, particularly the one where they talk about pregnancy remedies available in Quiapo.

Which leaves me with Aquino (yes, Angel Aquino’s sister—you’re welcome), who plays Billie’s aunt Miss Castro. The synopsis we read before watching the film described her character as a “spinster”, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Miss Castro as a young-ish, very well-dressed adult woman. Talk about reclaiming the word ‘spinster’.

Anyway: She also happens to be the school’s Religion teacher, and she was the one who requested their principal to accept Billie this far along in the school year. Guess what was on her lesson plan on Billie’s first day: Homosexuality is a sin.

Expectedly, Billie and her aunt’s relationship is strained at first—well, until it wasn’t. Perhaps this is the only part of the movie that I found a bit lacking in terms of build-up, although I understand that the movie needed to focus on the main relationship, which is Billie and Emma’s.

Later, it is revealed in a conversation that her aunt is also queer—people like us, she says. It’s out so ordinarily and without fanfare that I almost missed it. I had to resist the urge to stand up in the middle of the dark theater and yell, Did you hear that?? She said we! First person plural!

Given that’s the case, then Miss Castro’s character is even more intriguing than initially thought, because firstly: How can she live with herself, knowing full well where she stands re: homosexuality? That must be a lot of internalized homophobia right there. I want to know her better—Where did she come from? How did she get here?

The movie’s open-ended finish is also satisfying: Emma and her mother are on a bus on its way to Manila, a decision hanging above their heads. I’d love to watch a sequel with a considerable time-jump to the present: If Emma ends up keeping the baby, then that baby is now in her 20’s, and Emma would be around our age or a bit older.

That said, if you have time to watch a movie today, make it Billie and Emma! They’re showing in Glorietta 4. (Check out schedules and reserve tickets via Sureseats)

Let’s support queer stories and queer cinema!

Speaking of stories, here’s a roundup of some stories I enjoyed this week:

  • The Fertility Doctor’s Secret via The Atlantic. This is a batshit wild ride.

  • The Beauty Inside is a 2012 series by Intel and Toshiba, and it follows the story of a person who wakes up in a different body every day. This was surprisingly soft.

  • Have you seen the latest Stranger Things trailer???

  • Work-related: I am particularly proud of this mini-docu from our time teaching seniors in Magdalena, Laguna.