REVIEW: ‘FIREFLY’— Wondrous premise, wanting storytelling

TONTON goes on a roadtrip in search of the island of fireflies depicted in his mother’s story. | PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF GMA pictures

Zig Dulay’s MMFF Best Picture winner Firefly centers on Tonton (Euwenn Mikaell), a 10-year-old boy who lives alone with his young mother, Elay (Alessandra de Rossi), in a bucolic, sunset-soaked coastal town.

Life is pretty cruel to the often-bullied and easily scared Tonton. He also suffers from a complex visual hallucination in the form of a vicious black dog. So, Elay frequently comforts him with her made-up story about the friendship between a firefly and a butterfly.

DIRECTOR Zig Dulay with stars Alessandra de Rossi and Euwenn Mikaell.

But after Elay dies and Tonton is left alone with Auntie Linda (Cherry Pie Picache) — his new guardian who has zero empathy (she would rather focus on serving biscuits than comfort the boy during the mother’s wake) — he goes on a road trip in search of the island of fireflies depicted in his mother’s story.

Along the way, he meets a ragtag group of travelers: an ex-con (Jeffrey Quizon), a scammer (Ysabel Ortega), a stuck-up boy (Miguel Tanfelix) and, eventually, the wife of the ex-con (Yayo Aguila).

Love is the main theme in this sentimental indie-ish drama. While Dulay’s treatment is childlike and sprinkled with animation, it is not a fantasy film and it has dark undertones. It is anchored on a prevalent reality: Domestic violence.

If the Cinemalaya Best Picture Iti Mapupukaw (2023) deals with child sexual abuse, Firefly also touches on a huge societal problem that causes mental health problems among children who are witness to this.

Dulay weaves a delicate, melodious first act as he establishes the strong bond between Elay and Tonton, and the fears that torture the poor boy. De Rossi is effective as the loving mother, and her scenes with Tonton glimmer with tenderness.

Mikaell, who won the 2023 MMFF Best Child Performer award, is absolutely adorable and nails the role of a vulnerable orphan grappling for courage.

It’s the second act that burdens the film. The road trip to the island of fireflies feels rushed and lazy. The adults surrounding Tonton are all one-dimensional characters, with Ortega’s scammer character an unbearably annoying and unfunny “comic relief.”

Tanfelix’s unsmiling character serves as nothing more than the guy with the symbolic tattoo, who is given a moment to philosophize about an ex’s betrayal, which feels off and unintentionally funny.

Quizon is too invested in his compassionate and anxious ex-convict role. But his immense devotion to the role, complete with his earnest attempt at nuances, feels out of place in the generally “teleserye” feel of the movie.

And so the road trip becomes a yawn-inducing, predictable and lackluster affair crammed with trite, cliched dialogue. 

Convenient plot devices are scattered everywhere to propel the story. The girl is a scammer for a reason, some characters slip and fall to create action or drama.

A snatcher appears out of thin air to steal the bag of a child instead of an adult’s. Why would a snatcher think a child’s backpack has more valuable items than an adult’s bag?

These are the half-baked narrative techniques employed by the movie to create a series of conflicts in an already sluggish “adventure” tale. 

The only thing that ferries you through is the ongoing mystery
— the intermittent appearance of the black dog. It makes you wonder with concern if Tonton is schizophrenic or suffers from psychosis.

When the answer finally arrives and reveals the true story behind the hallucinatory dog and the painful origin of Elay’s story about the firefly, it slightly redeems the story.

The ending, though, is quite predictable. And once again the scammer character ruins the day as she breaks the “magical moment” with a freakin’ groufie. (At least this character is consistently irritating).

Dulay and screenwriter Angelie Atienza made use of a framing device featuring the adult Tonton (Dingdong Dantes) and a haughty magazine writer (Max Collins) who questions him like a Gestapo member. But the framing device is good as it solidifies the story’s depiction of the powerful effect of a mother’s love and encouragement.

Firefly nabbed the top prize at the MMFF for its original story that tackles a disturbing social issue. However, its wonderful premise, earnestness, social commentary and its inspiring message of “love conquers fear and trauma” are lost in its wanting, humdrum storytelling.

2.5 out of 5 stars / Today, 7 January, is the last day of the Metro Manila Film Festival.