TL;DR: Elise expands on its seemingly unassuming premise into a funny, bittersweet epic of an ordinary man finding love & self-discovery in unexpected places.
Elise starts out simple enough. Bert (Enchong Dee) returns to his hometown in the province with an antique music box in his hand. After visiting his former grade school teacher where he used to study, he was asked to accompany Remy (Miel Espinoza) – one of her young, irresponsible students – on her way home. She becomes interested in his music box, so Bert decides to tell its origins.
It came from his first love Elise, an athletic, aloof girl one year older than him who was his exact opposite. Even so, they still became a couple, escorting him in a traditional rite of tuli & indulging themselves at an ice cream parlor. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Elise & the rest of her family are moving to Manila. Elise breaks up with him, & hands him the same antique music box he’s holding in his hand in the present. Bert was so stunned by the sudden end of his first relationship that he didn’t even say a single word as she left their hometown.
That would’ve been the logical endpoint of his story, but he still kept going. What starts out as a small paean to first love grows into something more ambitious. It’s obvious that Elise made a huge impact in his life, and she continues to haunt his life in small ways. The movie even opens up to include other people who made a mark on his life. There’s his kind, supportive mother Mama Josie (Jackie Lou Blanco), his fiery grandmother Lola Jesusa (Pilita Corrales), his goofy best friend Gian (Victor Anastacio), & Rita (Laura Lehmann), a nurse in training in charge of taking care of Lola Jesusa, whose true passion lies in writing. He even crosses paths with Elise again, this time played wonderfully by Janine Guiterrrez, who now has a boyfriend (Miko Raval).
Elise slowly transforms into a story of a young man stumbling his way in & out of love & self-discovery that spans decades, marked with missed opportunities, branching paths, triumphs, failures, and even death; turning the life of an ordinary man into a sprawling epic. It’s amazing it can do this in under two hours, because it’s the kind of movie that feels much longer than it should. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s so engaging & affecting when it takes you on an emotional journey that it can be hard to keep track of time.
It does this, surprisingly enough, by avoiding the tropes & clichés of biopics. Not every event presented in the film is declared with utmost importance nor does it reveal to be a building block towards Bert’s maturation. It makes time for those fine details & small moments that while may not change Bert’s life completely, but still reverberate throughout his life, acting as reminders for the people he crossed paths with or a way to reveal a tiny facet of their personality. When it’s time to showcase momentous events from Bert’s life, it does so with specificity & warmth that it turns something familiar as a graduation or a breakup into something that’s completely lived-in. It’s the kind of movie that would reveal that Elise would play a game of FLAMES when she had a fight with her boyfriend or a graduation picture that blocks out Bert’s then-girlfriend. It’s a marvel of editing that these never become intrusive or turn the movie into a sluggish mess.
It is far from a somber treatise on love & life though. Joel Ferrer & Miko Livelo’s script are peppered with silly, hilarious gags, which isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with their work; both of whom have been making solid, underrated comedies with a heavy focus on the follies & struggles of men. The movie’s focus on small moments makes it easier for them to set up these jokes without distracting from the film’s gentle storytelling. It would show a scene where Bert, Gian & Lola Jesusa goofing off with fireworks & its consequences just because it would be funny & amusing. They feel like small vignettes that fill out the shades of the rich tapestry they have created, without losing its tender, bittersweet nature or its ability to move from one moment to another without a hitch.
This tapestry they’ve built would have unraveled quickly if not for the excellent ensemble they’ve filled out throughout the movie. Pilita Corrales & Jackie Lou Blanco imbue their characters with so much life even in their limited screentime, which is a challenging feat to accomplish, that it’s easy to understand why Bert would feel so much love & affection for them. Miel Espinoza is a great foil to Bert’s earnestness, annoying him with her impatience & snarky comebacks, which makes it more fulfilling when she reveals the sadness that she’s felt for a long time. Victor Anastacio has carved out his own niche for playing silly side characters, & Gian fits him like a glove, even if he’s less manic compared to his other roles. Janine Guiterrez is captivating as the title character, a confident woman who couldn’t quite escape the whims of her parents or her boyfriend, until she finally does; it helps that the film doesn’t allow Elise to be seen only through Bert’s rose-colored glasses.
But this movie wouldn’t work at all without Enchong Dee. He’s at the center of the movie, holding everything together as Bert moves from one point of his life to another. It helps that Enchong Dee has a warm, Everyman presence, so seeing him embody Bert’s transformation from a shy, awkward man who just wants to hang out with his buddies into a mature, responsible adult who never lost his goofy side never becomes jarring or boring.
Elise is apparently based on a true story, but even without knowing this tidbit you can already feel from Bert’s journey that this is the case. Bert may be an ordinary man lucky enough to live in ordinary circunstances, yet his nearly aimless journey, one that can’t be grafted onto a three-act structure that easily, echoes so much of the pain & beauty that’s out there in a world ruled by an omnipresent randomness. We will face a constant string of beginnings, endings, and moments that will not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but what’s important is to keep yourself open to love in all its forms. Sometimes, what we don’t expect to change our lives might’ve been right there all along.