[Spoiler alert! Trigger warning: This film contains scenes depicting child sexual abuse.
By L.S. Mendizabal
In 2000-something, dressed in my high school uniform, I went to the local city mall during class hours to see Orange and Lemons perform live. Armed with my Nokia 7250, I remember chasing after the band members on the escalators—they were going up, I was going down!—desperate to get closer images of them. My fangirling skills include effectively elbowing my way through crowds at jam-packed concerts and shows to get to at least second row, but nothing as wild as what Antoinette Jadaone’s latest film’s titular character is capable of doing for a more intimate encounter with a stranger she equates to nothing short of a god.
Fan Girl begins like any other movie directed and written by Jadaone in the Filipino setting with its depressing nature often eclipsed by dry Pinoy wit and humor and an ambitious, strong-willed female protagonist. In this case, she’s a 16-year-old high school student (Charlie Dizon) with chipped hot pink nail polish and an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity (Paolo Avelino playing a fictional larger-than-life version of himself). Paolo’s omnipresence from the internet to life-size cut-out standees and billboards as well as his effortless evasion of traffic laws establish the character’s popularity. When the fan girl skips class to see him at a mall show and stealthily makes her way to the back of his pick-up truck where she hides herself amongst her idol’s posters, merchandise and gifts from other fans, the mood is light, airy, silly, even borderline rom-com. The only real source of conflict is if she gets caught. The minute Paolo drives past the toll gates and spews out his first “Putangina!” of probably a thousand, the viewer is taken into a darker, harsher environment: vast rice fields and grasslands, rough roads, no electricity, a heavily locked gate one should climb over, an old, abandoned mansion/drug den. The fan girl is now trapped, hours away from home, her phone unable to send a single text. In her eyes, however, everything is brightly optimistic, not unlike Paolo’s romantic flicks. She feels safe with him. He can do no wrong. She is close to him and nothing else matters.
The fan girl is clearly delusional. Blinded by hero worship and overall naivete, she is not a reliable storyteller. Like Paolo, the film undresses from its initially attractive exterior and reveals the plot at its core: an obsessed girl—a child!—is stuck with a vaguely threatening male adult, the object of her obsession. Without giving away too many spoilers, all the viewer’s fears come true as the two main characters spend a day and a night over alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. The fan girl takes everything he offers, eager to please her host. Dizon gives one of the most convincing performances I’ve seen of someone new to these substances. I’m happy to report that you’ll find none of that stupid “Pare, hindi ako lashing” sort of drunk acting here (if you’ve seen Filipino movies and teleseryes at all, you know exactly what I mean). Dizon is truly beguiling in the way that her character tries to play a more mature seductress (“Hindi na ako bata,” she says thrice) but is betrayed by her perennially sweaty upper lip, stringy hair and breath that reeks of vomit. In the hands of a cis-hetero male writer / director, scenes like this could’ve easily become something like a glorified sex scandal.
Paolo is appalled yet intrigued by the fan girl’s childish qualities. Her adoration fuels his ego and aggravates his desire to exploit and dominate her. I’ve seen many a disturbing movie but this one has still made me turn in my seat. Sometimes, there’s nothing more terrifying than watching a megalomaniac take advantage of a fanatic too smitten with him to see what he really is: a macho-fascist, misogynist and rapist. On the other hand, Paolo is written as somewhat of a caricature-like villain, complete with tattoos, alcoholism, drug dependence and a heavy metal score. Personally, I find this a bit much but I guess it was intentional. After all, he does remind me of the Dutertes and their refreshing “bad boy” strongman mass appeal what with their rugged demeanors and similar choice of expletives to Paolo’s in the sea of polished orators and traditional politicians. There are rare instances when Paolo shows a more human, sensitive side. This disappears almost abruptly with each opportunity of manipulating the fan girl. The car scene where she has a meltdown (Dizon’s award-winning moment, in my opinion) and asks if she could stay one more night with him is the viewer’s first glimpse of her personal struggle. We come to understand that she does not look forward to coming home to a mother who is similarly enamored with her abusive stepfather. The fantasy of Paolo has been her escape all along.
Fan Girl is a coming-of-age horror story and an allegory of sorts. Knowing one of the script consultants and film poster designer, Karl Castro, and his controversial yet critically praised thesis production, Manwal sa Paggawa ng Pelikula (2007), I can see how Fan Girl, too, is a critique of the film industry itself: how it keeps artists’ careers afloat with love teams and fake romances, how it feeds on stan culture and how the industry has looked the other way when its biggest earning stars go unscathed after sexually abusing or raping hapless individuals.
In a post-Duterte Philippines, where celebrity, influencer culture, fanaticism and social media are all effectively used and weaponized by the current regime against all forms of dissent, Fan Girl is undoubtedly a product of its time. We see how a diehard devout stan (DDS) continues to believe and venerate her idol despite all the truths she’s uncovered. It doesn’t bug her that he has lied about being Bea Alonzo’s boyfriend, or that he uses drugs, or practically treats her like trash. She only begins to question his morals when she discovers that he’s screwing a married woman. And then, without warning, the fan girl ceases to be loyal to Paolo when she witnesses him beat said woman. The instant she sees her own poor family in Paolo’s woman and child is when the fantasy is shattered. The spell is broken and her prince becomes a frog. The lack of transition is quite jarring. However, if seen and appreciated as an allegory, Fan Girl’s ending actually makes perfect sense: Now surrounded by posters and tarpaulins of President Rodrigo Duterte’s face, the fan girl, whose name we actually find out in the end, decides to help her family by putting an end to her stepfather’s abuse. Who does she turn to? The repressive state institution being championed by diehard devout stans, of course. She has exercised personal agency. The problem lies within the very system that only serves and protects Paolos.
Disturbingly dark, twisted, unforgiving in its honesty and social commentary, and arguably her best and bravest yet, Fan Girl is entirely unlike any other movie by Jadaone. And we need more stories like this now. More than ever. #