Foster Child

Courtesy photo
Brillante Mendoza/Philippines 2007

The lines between acting and life are impossible to discern in Foster Child, the story of one day in the life of a Manila foster mother that ends up packing an almighty punch. Filmed in an uncompromising vérité style complete with much authentic dust and rust and all the interruptions and fourth-wall breaking that a film involving dozens of babies is going to provide, the camera follows a family in a Philippines shanty town through extended scenes of domesticity and daily life. They cook, they eat, they bicker, they bathe, all in unedited scenes that just land you there, observing.

Brillante Mendoza’s hand-held camera follows characters through shacks and crowds and turbulent family ties without hurrying, or sometimes even seeming to be pointing in the right direction. At one point a character sets about opening a can with a four-inch blade and it starts to seem the camera could run out of battery power before he manages to get it done.

After a while you realize that you’re following Thelma (Cherry Pie Picache) on what turns out to be her last day fostering three-year-old John-John (Kier Segundo) before he is given over to an American couple for a new life in San Francisco. Thelma is a loving, compassionate foster mother, in a location where the number of unwanted babies and orphans has turned fostering into an assembly-line process.

Mendoza positions everyone involved in the fostering and adoption process in a positive light, but then stacks the deck a bit by arranging for the hand-over of John-John to be in the American couple’s swanky hotel, where the Americans can’t help but seem condescending and shady. Thelma’s dignity and unconditional affection for all her children, real and adopted, is so completely beyond question that you regret Mendoza deliberately removing that dignity from her when faced with a marbled bathroom and complicated plumbing. Arranging for Thelma to actually get soaked in the hotel’s posh shower during what’s already a heartrending situation is a level of manipulation that led at least one viewer to seethe.

I was seething since Picache is astonishing, building an effortlessly moving performance from incremental maternal movements and feints. At the end, when the inevitable fostering cycle plays out and Thelma’s sadness breaks through the surface, Picache turns herself inside out. You would have given a lot to stop that happening.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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