In Focus: School Service

Rita (Ai-Ai de las Alas) and Robert (Joel Lamangan) are siblings who run a small-time begging syndicate. Their latest recruit Maya (Celine Juan) was abducted from the province and brought to Manila. We follow their group for one full day and bear witness to how they operate.

All the common modus operandi you can think of involving street children are shown onscreen – from feigning disability, inventing stories, setting up a salisi, inhaling rugby, to offering blowjobs. Even Robert is presented as a stereotypical gay who’s head over heels in love with the macho Kiko (Kevin Sagra). The problem with School Service is that it ends there. It exposes all these things but doesn’t carry a clear message or a fresh perspective.

It’s been 14 years since Cinemalaya helped establish the indie circuit. These types of films would have been fine a decade ago, but the audience is now more mature, more aware, more meticulous. It’s not enough to illustrate poverty; there should be an attempt to elevate the material. Previous best picture winners Pamilya Ordinaryo and Respeto succeeded in doing just that.

To be fair, it tries to humanize the siblings and justify their illegal activities. For one, they are devoted to their sick father. Also, in one scene, all the other children shared they’re better off staying with Rita and Robert, that their ragtag group is their real family. But how does that justify Maya’s whole abduction episode? I’ve observed she’s the only one taken forcibly, and she’s evidently unwilling and miserable. No wonder all their bad luck befell them since getting her.

As far as performances go, Ai-Ai de las Alas is always a delight to watch in serious roles. Joel Lamangan rarely appears in movies, so it was a pleasure to see him here. You also can’t go wrong with Therese Malvar and Kenken Nuyad.

By depicting only what we already know, School Service feels like an outdated film that doesn’t break new ground. As it is, it’s just poverty porn.

Directed by: Louie Ignacio
Starring: Ai-Ai de las Alas, Joel Lamangan, Celine Juan, Therese Malvar, Kenken Nuyad

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