Filipino movies

‘Family Matters’ review: Old tricks, same magic

Lé Baltar

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‘Family Matters’ review: Old tricks, same magic
The film's solid, reliable cast are aware of how to make the most out of their characters but never fail to maintain chemistry with each other

MANILA, Philippines – Going into the cinema for a movie called Family Matters comes off like a gamble precisely because of how wry and bland the title sounds. Fortunately, this family drama clearly knows itself and takes advantage of every material at its disposal – at times, to a fault – making the gamble pay off.

The premise is a no-brainer. Ellen (Nikki Valdez) hopes to fly to the United States for a burgeoning romance, but guilt gets in the way as she frets over leaving her elderly parents Francisco (Noel Trinidad) and Eleanor (Liza Lorena) who she has long taken care of, especially after the patriarch encounters a health scare. 

Ellen then gathers her siblings Kiko (Nonie Buencamino), Fortune (Mylene Dizon), and Enrico (JC Santos) to figure things out. Yet she catches everyone by surprise when she travels to the US without notice, so the three siblings living in the Philippines have to deal with the matter at hand.

Director Nuel Naval hardly reinvents the wheel as the film bears an uncanny resemblance with Leo McCarey’s classic masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and local pieces such as Laurice Guillen’s Tanging Yaman (2000), which was a big hit at the time’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), and Cathy Garcia-Molina’s Seven Sundays (2017). But its contemporary sentiment separates the film from its predecessors, best captured by the third act in which the family attempts to disconnect from a world buoyed by the internet.

Given his roots in ABS-CBN’s Maalaala Mo Kaya, Asia’s longest-running drama anthology, Naval taps into a tried and tested formula that unapologetically places melodrama and sentimentality as the film’s most defining elements, recognizing that its success hinges on pure relatability.

Still, Naval manages to steer the film into a sweeping viewing experience because the director knows better than to bank on cheap histrionics and trivialize the pent-up beef and tension ingrained in family reunions, allowing the audience to settle in before opening the floodgates of emotion.

Yet Family Matters doesn’t solely succumb to plain drama. When a scene registers like it is about to go over the top, Naval insists restraint and injects energetic humor to strike a balance between the heavy scenes and the light ones, and even the banter between the characters reveals something about their own insecurities.

Of course, the film would not succeed without good material. The script, written by Mel Mendoza del Rosario, puts the film’s title to work precisely because of the sheer volume of family matters it unravels, knowledgeable that individual character arcs are just as paramount as the overall narrative, although the subplots could use some more fine-tuning. Where the story ends also requires some more calibration as it feels like the film could have already culminated early on, not only to reduce the runtime but also tighten the impact of the message.

But if one is to point out the film’s biggest merit, it would be the superb ensemble performance that leaves no false note. Trinidad and Lorena’s dynamic as a couple grappling with the perceived burden that comes with old age is a sight to behold, particularly in subdued moments where their silence and facial expressions alone are enough to convey their fragility and uncertainties. Buencamino also proves his acting mettle as the cocky Kiko, knowing when to keep his guard up and let it down, especially in loaded scenes.

The rest of the supporting cast also turn in solid, reliable work. Dizon, Valdez, and Santos are aware of how to make the most out of their characters but never fail to maintain chemistry with each other. Agot Isidro, James Blanco, Anna Luna, and Ina Feleo likewise offer hefty performances that thrive even in brief moments.

What makes this stacked cast far more impressive is how Ian Pangilinan rises to the occasion and delivers a work that easily makes him the MVP of this film. His affectionate acting makes more pronounced the budding pressure that Francis is forced to come to terms with as Kiko’s eldest child. His acting chops are on full display in a confrontation scene with Buencamino, like a dark horse waiting for the perfect time to show what he’s made of and nails it ever so brilliantly, lending the film its most emotionally-charged moment. Pangilinan’s work here is proof that he has a lot more to offer as an actor of his generation.

So what a charade it is to learn that this year’s MMFF jury decided to shut some of these performances out of the acting categories. That some of the actors didn’t even make the cut for the official list of nominees exhibits a lapse in judgment too glaring to go unnoticed — a disservice the MMFF extends in its decision to hand out awards only two days into the festival, when the entries barely relish its theatrical release, save for those deserving to be pulled out.

While Family Matters puts faith in the Filipino family, it also implores us to confront the complexity of a Filipino household replete with intergenerational trauma and overbearing expectations – how unhealthy familial relationships often lead to cutting off ties and how it takes a village to keep someone dear to us. 

Undeniably, Family Matters is best picture material, articulating that, if done tastefully, relying on old tricks can still bear some transfixing magic. But the members of the jury lousily think otherwise (and no, this isn’t a knock on this year’s top prize winner). –

Family Matters is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.