‘She’s Dating the Gangster’ Review: Asking for a greater love story
Love is all a matter of timing. At least, that’s what She’s Dating the Gangster wants us to believe. Amidst the melodramatic platitudes and cued teardrops, there’s still an unmistakable amount of truth in the sentiment.
One of the greatest love stories, Romeo and Juliet, was a matter of timing. In the play’s climactic end, seconds are all that separate tragedy from triumph. Had Juliet woken up seconds sooner, or had Romeo arrived seconds later, maybe Shakespeare’s classic love story wouldn’t have ended in tragedy.
In a way, She’s Dating the Gangster is its own tragedy. And like Romeo and Juliet, it’s a tragedy that could’ve been readily (though maybe not easily) avoided.
Based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino, She’s Dating the Gangster follows teenagers Athena (Kathryn Bernardo) and Kenji (Daniel Padilla), two students caught in a romantic cliché as old as cinema.
Kenji recruits Athena to be his pseudo-girlfriend in an effort to spark jealousy in his former girlfriend Abby (Sofia Andres). But when Athena and Kenji’s feelings cross the line from make-believe to reality, the conspiracy becomes predictably complicated.
But the new spin to the familiar formula is that the story is enframed by Kenneth and Kelay, two modern day teens searching for Kenneth’s father. As we unravel the love story between Athena and Kenji, so do we bear witness to the love story of Kenneth and Kelay. The novelty here is that both couples are played by Bernardo and Padilla.
It’s twice the love team with twice the story. But whether two of everything is better than one of anything is still a matter of debate.
But mostly, it’s a matter of timing.
Kilig and clichés
Despite its lofty romantic themes, She’s Dating the Gangster still beats like a teenager’s heart. Its characters are blinded by juvenile naiveté and are undeterred by the prospect of heartbreak. And though the film is crippled by an unbearable number of soap opera style twists, it at least delivers on its sugar-drenched romantic promise. (READ: She's Dating the Gangster earns P15 million on its first day)
"Kilig much?” Kelay asks the romantically pessimistic Kenneth. It’s a question aimed right at even the hardest of hearts when, during a moment of temporary weakness, they might be so inclined to yell, “Yes! Yes! Kilig very much!”
Whether it’s mistakenly sent beeper messages or flirtatious rounds of billiards, She’s Dating the Gangster goes straight for the heart: the kilig factor. When left to her own devices, director Cathy Garcia-Molina shows why Bernardo and Padilla’s reign as the country’s premiere love team is a well-deserved title.
But unfortunately, She’s Dating the Gangster doesn’t escape the usual gauntlet of teleserye-inspired twists. A case of mistaken identity, an ugly-duckling make-over, an ominous heart condition and even a last minute bout of cancer all make an appearance in this clubhouse sandwich of mainstream cinema clichés.
It’s one unbelievable twist after another. But while it stands close to derailing the film from its initially lighthearted tracks, the film manages to stay on course thanks to its charming cast.
At first glance, the love story of Athena and Kenji is a typical girl meets boy tale marred by the usual romantic comedy clichés. But as the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that the film isn’t content with delivering a cookie-cutter teen romance.
This isn’t simply because of the film’s predominantly ‘90s setting or non-traditional parallel narrative. Buried beneath the story’s many melodramatic twists is a tale about second chances and missed opportunities.
“Kahit isang beses sa buhay mo, ayaw mo maging matapang?” Kenji asks Athena. (For just once in your life, don’t you want to be tough?)
It’s a question challenging the couple’s supposedly fabricated relationship. But it’s also an opportunity for the two to seize something real.
She’s Dating the Gangster claims that we are helpless at the whims of time and love, and yet challenges its characters to seize it when they can. But when it comes right down to it, the She’s Dating the Gangster doesn’t follow its own advice.
Towards the film’s climax, Kenji and Athena are forced to make a decision that inevitably alters the course of their relationship. The circumstances are as contrived as they are unbelievable, but regardless of their plausibility, it’s also a chink in the film’s romantic armor.
Without giving too much away, Kenji and Athena make the noble, arguably harder, decision. But while there is no mistaking the sacrifice of both Kenji and Athena, there is also an alarming sense of disappointment to their love story. They are each other’s great love, Kelay so proudly proclaims to Kenneth. But how can any love be great when it’s not held on and fought for with every fiber of your being and with any bone in your body?
That love isn’t great. That love is an excuse.
A greater love story
She’s Dating the Gangster is clearly no work of Shakespeare, nor does it aspire to be. But while loose comparisons can be drawn between She’s Dating the Gangster and Romeo and Juliet, the lovers in the latter at least stood for love until life itself was robbed from the young lovers’ very lungs. But it turns out that Kenji and Athena are made of less hardy stuff. When challenged, their love bends, then folds, but ultimately breaks.
She’s Dating the Gangster is a teen love story peppered with surprisingly mature themes. But at the end of the day, it’s a love story that doesn’t fight hard enough or dig deep enough. It’s a film that is admittedly delightful, and satisfyingly charming, but it’s also a film that doesn’t challenge its material or its characters.
Love-struck audiences all over the country will undoubtedly wish for a love as great as Kenji and Athena's. But to that, one should say, No.
Ask for something greater. Ask for something stronger. Ask for a love that doesn’t bend to sickness, hardships or timing. Ask for a relationship that is stronger than Kenji and tougher than Athena. And fight for it to last. In no way are these easy demands to make of any relationship, but a love is only as great as the circumstances through which it survives.
A few fleeting months are not worth a lifetime of regret, especially when you’ve been given the opportunity to change it. If there’s anything we should be taking away from both Kenji and Athena, it’s that love really is all about timing. That’s why we should seize it, hold it, and never let it go when we’re given the opportunity to claim it.
But maybe this is where Kenneth and Kelay will do a better job. And for the sake of all great love stories, my hope is that they do. – Rappler.com
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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