Directed by Mikhail Red
Starring Vance Larena, Kelvin Miranda, Sue Ramirez
If you were hoping that the first Filipino-produced Netflix original film would mitigate the image of Manila as a crime-ridden metropolis, you will be sorely disappointed: If there’s anything original about Mikhail Red’s Dead Kids, supposedly inspired by actual events surrounding the kidnapping of schoolkids, it’s how that criminality has spread to middle-class teens. It adds a patina of youth and vitality to the crime caper movie. It’s also slightly depressing.
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Having high-schoolers take the lead in a criminal enterprise also gives this story a coming-of-age sheen. And boy, will these characters come of age in a hurry with the get-rich-quick scheme they’re cooking up. There’s poor but studious good boy Mark (Kelvin Miranda), squatting in what is basically an enlarged storeroom at his nagging aunt’s leisure, aiming for entry into the top colleges and pining for the school’s golden girl Janina (Sue Ramirez), who is disposable arm candy to insufferable BMOC and rich kid bully Chuck (Markus Paterson).
As it happens, Mark, Janina and Chuck are all participating in a stage production of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, where Mark is approached by brooding mastermind Blanco (Vance Larena), garrulous clown Paolo (Khalil Ramos, getting all the zingers) and put-upon nerd Uy (first-time actor Jan Silverio) with a proposition: Kidnap Chuck and force his alleged drug kingpin father (Ku Aquino) to shell out a massive ransom. Of course, once the boys have Chuck in their custody, their plan goes off the rails pretty quickly.
If the characters all seem like pre-fabricated stereotypes, that concern is soon demolished by the young cast’s commitment to their roles and their intense camaraderie. Seriously: This cast and their chemistry are awesome, with Larena, anger and little-boy hurt radiating out of his cat’s eyes, and Ramos, tossing off punchlines with the ease of a seasoned comedian, acquitting themselves particularly well. But it’s dispiriting that the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with all the dynamite it has at its disposal.
There are funny observations about social media validation (the scheme is complicated by an ill-considered Snapchat post) and cynical political commentary (one character declares that only squatters get victimized by extra-judicial killings, not private-school kids like them). Which would have been well and good if Mikhail Red and his screenwriter-editor Nikolas Red had summoned more energy paying tribute and subverting the genre. There is the ample suggestion of noir in the smoky lighting of lensman Mycko David, but little follow-through in terms of twists, double-crosses, or double-crosses upon double-crosses.
Or, barring anything fresh in plot machination (see: Rian Johnson’s bracing take on the murder mystery Knives Out for an amazing example), a deeper exploration of the characters’ hidden agenda would have sufficed. But motivations are barely sketched in: It is implied, for one, that gang leader Blanco resents Chuck for the way Chuck’s criminal father has his own policeman dad under his thumb.
But Blanco’s relationship with his father isn’t explored to any appreciable depth, and so the emotional climax to this subplot doesn’t pay dividends as much as it should. Meanwhile, perky Janina abruptly becomes a fatalistic pessimist in the last act, with nary a well-traced character arc to explain why, or to what end. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Dead Kids is that it could have had so much more life.
Photographs from @netflixph on Instagram