Movie Review: Alone/Together is a Bittersweet Reclamation of the Past

TL;DR: Alone/Together weaves the personal & political to weave a gripping tale of self-rediscovery. It just happens to have a love story starring Enrique Gil & Liza Soberano in what might contain their best work yet.

Starting from her excellent, sadly underseen debut Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, Antoinette Jadaone has always centered her films around smart, outspoken women & their struggles, depicting their inner lives without infantilizing them. Her romantic films & TV shows, which covers most of her work, are no different. Even when they’re heartbroken or lovestruck, they aren’t defined by their romance, since it only serves to complement who they have become over the course of her films. Her women leads are flawed, relatable, & unmistakably human, written with such rich detail that it’s easy to imagine them starring in films that don’t involve them falling in or out of love.

Alone/Together is no different. Christine (Liza Soberano) begins the film reminiscing when she views Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” at the National Museum of Fine Arts. This is where she first met Raf (Enrique Gil) ten years ago, a B.S. Biology pre-med student at the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest existing university, who’s on track to get a medical degree. Back then, she was still a B.A. Arts Studies major on track to become a valedictorian in the prestigious, state-run University of the Philippines who volunteers as a tour guide at the museum in her spare time.

They couldn’t be more different. Raf is a confident, pragmatic student struggling with his studies, while Christine is a smart, ambitious, & passionate student with a strong sense of morality. She dreams of working in prestigious museums like the MoMa & Uffizi Gallery, so she can learn more about her craft & bring that knowledge back in here, where she can help push for institutional changes to support museums & Filipino art. Yet they still ended up together, which is good for Raf. Being with her inspires him to study hard so he can graduate as early as possible & build a life with her.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Christine breaks up with Raf, leaving him heartbroken. To make matters worse, she becomes an unwilling accomplice to her boss’ embezzlement scheme in her first job, which not only ruined her reputation & the chance to apply for internships at museums abroad, but also crumbled her confidence, especially in the face of any wrongdoing.

They both cross paths once again five years later. Raf is now an emergency room physician at a public hospital who also serves as a barrio doctor at Dinagat Island, and he also has a girlfriend named Sam (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who works at the same hospital as a nurse. Christine now works for Greg (Luis Alandy), a successful businessman & her current boyfriend who supported Christine when he was her boss back when she faced criminal charges. Their sudden reunion forces both of them to take stock of their past decisions & consider the kind of people they have become.

But there’s no question whose story is being told here. The whole film is a feature-length flashback of Christine’s life, an autopsy of her failed dreams, missed opportunities, & small triumphs. It’s somewhat similar to the also excellent & sadly underseen Elise, as they are both tales of love & self-discovery that spans multiple years. The only difference is Christine already knows who she is, & the film tracks as she tries to reconcile the person she has become & the person she wants to be. Jadaone’s knack for breathing life to her female characters is on full display here, as she uses multiple periods of her life to reveal her flaws & complexities. Watching it all unfold is gripping, even more so when you consider that the main character is a woman. It’s rare to watch a movie backed by a mainstream studio that tells a tale of redemption with a woman at the center; probing her wants & needs with laser focus, & even pushing its male characters to the periphery when needed.

There’s also a heavy political subtext that ties it to its obsessions with the past, which is surprising for a film positioned as the Valentine’s Day movie event. Jadaone, who is a UP graduate herself, doesn’t use famous landmarks like the Sunken Garden just for its familiar, beautiful scenery. It lives up to the spirit of the Philippines’ top university famous for its fiery activism. It espouses the values of using the knowledge they’ve learned in & out of the classroom to help marginalized communities, & how a deeper understanding of our national history & proper support for Filipino arts will shape a better future for our country. At one point, Christine asks children to “never forget,” which is a local rallying cry against the Marcos’ resurgence to power & a reminder of the atrocities committed during Martial Law. It’s also become her unofficial mantra, one that allowed her to get stuck in the past.

Liza Soberano weaves all of these intricacies in her revelatory performance. Her role spans years & Soberano reveals the nuances of who Christine is in every stage of her life; even without the help of the gorgeous makeup & costume design, which fit perfectly for these characters. She’s vibrant & assured during Christine’s college years, which makes it even more painful whe she breaks down & turns into a stiff, aimless shell of who she used to be. That’s why it’s so thrilling when she finally makes small steps to reclaim pieces of her past as her own.

The film’s narrow focus on Christine does have a side effect: the romance feels somewhat lacking compared to the rest of Jadaone’s oeuvre. It glosses over important parts of Raf & Christine’s young romance, which makes it feel a bit weightless. We don’t get to know Raf with the same depth as Christine, since he’s rarely onscreen. He functions as a ghost, a painful reminder of what she could’ve been; which is funny because one of the theories surrounding Alone/Together before its release is Raf is dead.

But Raf feels alive thanks to Enrique Gil. He is burdened with the tricky task of making us believe that Christine is drawn to him outside of what he represents in her life. Thankfully, Gil gives Raf a crackling confidence he never lost once he aged, & layers it with the calm & maturity he never had once they reunite. When he does get to join Soberano onscreen, they just dazzle. Their youthful romance is vibrant & energetic, drunk on the endless possibilities of the future, that it becomes bittersweet when they meet once again fully changed by their experiences. There’s always a palpable sense of longing lingering between them, even as they both know that they can’t return to the way things were.

The act of reminiscing can be a cruel trap. Christine may have never forgotten, but it only reinforced her painful past. She has also grown up, & growing old is a process that will leave anyone tired & regreful. Alone/Together weaves the personal & political together to find a way to get out of the rut & finally move on from our past. Armed with the acknowledgement of her mistakes & the knowledge she gained to avoid making them again, she can take charge of her own story & rebuild what she has lost.

Movie Review: Never Not Love You is One of the Best Modern Takes on Love vs Career

TL;DR: Never Not Love You is a beautiful, grounded examination on how hard it is to choose between love & career, with excellent performances from James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

Countless movies have been made about the modern dilemma of choosing between love & career, yet only few of them feel as bracing or as heartbreaking as Never Not Love You. It arrives at a time where Filipinos are more receptive to emotionally realistic romance movies, & Antoinette Jadaone – who’s one of the key people who this style more palatable to audiences – delivers her most mature movie yet, backed up by one of the most popular love teams in the Philippines & real-life couple James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

The duo play Joanne & Gio, a couple who jumps somewhat recklessly into a loving relationship. Joanne is an ambitious marketing assistant who left the province for Makati City, dreaming of ascending the corporate ladder & making her parents proud. She meets Gio, a freelance artist passionate with tattoos known for his playboy streak, when he sold her a pack of stickers. It’s very clear that Gio fell hard for Joanne the moment he saw her, & since he’s the kind of person who chooses to pursue what makes him happy, he starts courting her unofficially. She tries her best to resist his charms due to his reputation, but soon they become so close they start living together; it’s fine if an unwed couple cohabitate, because c’mon guys, it’s 2018.

Here is where JaDine – the nickname for the duo – continues to prove why they are a huge Filipino phenomenon. It’s easy to root for them, since they’re just charming & charismatic as a couple. But this is a more intimate romance compared to their previous work – as much as you can be intimate in a PG-rated – that’s complemented by their childlike intensity. You can see it in how Mycko David & Carlos Mauricio shoot the movie, mostly with close-ups & handheld shots while Gio & Joanne are often bathe in bright, neon colors. Or how the wide shots capture the endless possibilities in front of them. It produces some of the most gorgeous visuals they’ve ever done, turning Makati & Zambales into a rural & urban sandbox they can freely explore. The most outstanding aspect though, is Jadaone’s rich, economical writing, as she explores their dynamic & following it thoroughly as it flourishes, while setting up possible roadblocks in their future without dragging the whole movie into a slog.

And trouble does arrive for the couple. When Gio’s father stops financially supporting him, he starts lashing out at everyone, including Joanne. He can’t live on the few, sporadic jobs alone, he doesn’t want Joanne to support him, nor does he want to work in a corporate environment for fear of losing the freedom to do what he wants. When his friend reveals that he received a job offer from one of his clients to work for their company in London with a huge salary, Joanne asks him why he didn’t take it. Leaving her behind isn’t an option for him, since he wants to have a future with her together. He asks her to go to London with him, but she doesn’t want to since she’s already up for a promotion to assistant brand manager. It causes a big fight, but in the end they both decided that moving to London is the best option for them.

That’s just the beginning of the hardships their relationship will face, & Jadaone details every facet of their journey. Gio & Joanne are clearly in a loving, supportive relationship, but they’re often at each other’s throats due to their neuroses, insecurities, & social backgrounds. Jadaone is trying to reveal something truthful & grounded without wrapping it around a unique hook – which isn’t a bad thing, considering she made some of her best work under that mode – & she mostly succeeds, revealing how frustrating it is to bridge the gap between their love for each other & what they want to achieve in life, while commenting about class & even race; even if the latter isn’t as subtle as it should be. (You can argue that putting JaDine in a serious romantic drama that’s also shot in London is a hook in itself, but I digress.)

It’s during this half of the movie where James Reid & Nadine Lustre clearly step up. James Reid is the obvious standout as the impulsive & temperamental Gio, whose intensity & devil-may-care attitude brings out the best & worst in him. Jadaone is careful not to write him as an awful jerk, but he could still be detestable in the wrong hands. Thankfully, James Reid uses the charismatic bad boy image he’s cultivated over the years to show the flawed, well-intentioned side underneath his cocky demeanor, & watching him grow emotionally over the course of the movie is engrossing to watch. That doesn’t mean Nadine Lustre is slacking off on the sidelines. Joanne is pragmatic & ambitious, & you can see Lustre carefully navigating their tricky relationship, as she moves from supporting Gio’s dreams & begrudging how further she is from achieving hers, with her resentment slowly simmer, until it completely boils over. She also has her own journey to take in the movie, & she reveals the subtle changes she made without her calling attention to it. Even the visuals become more sober & less frentic without losing its beauty, as the same visual language used earlier in the movie turned their world smaller, even as they travel & achieve more success.

It’s a complicated position to be put in, yet Never Not Love You never takes the easy way out. While the events leading up to its conclusion could’ve been tighter, it takes a more realistic stance. Being in a committed relationship is a constant act of negotiation, & as long as the love that brought them together doesn’t curdle into bitterness, they’ll survive any obstacle in their way.