NED'S PROJECT (Lem Lorca, 2016)
Photo from Ned's Project FB page.
* Official entry, CINEFILIPINO FILM FESTIVAL 2016
“Ned’s Project” is a film that explores the pursuit of happiness. Henedina De Asis, or Ned (Angeli Bayani) is a lesbian tattoo artist who seems content with her life. She has a girlfriend, a paying job and a circle of friends in her own small world. A lot of her time though is devoted to Max (Lui Manansala), a bedridden elderly lesbian who also functions as Ned’s confidante.
Despite having a lesbian character in the lead, “Ned’s Project” veers away from the common clichés of queer cinema by portraying the protagonist, Ned as an ordinary person, capable of making mistakes, and for that alone, the film is worth your time.
Ned is given a clear goal, which is to find happiness. When clearly her girlfriend Gladys (Dionne Monsanto) isn’t the answer, Ned breaks down. She fears for her own mortality.
So she decides to become a mother, but sex with a man is out of the question. Yet the script, written by John Bedia does not spare Ned from making terrible life choices, as with the rest of humanity.
In her desire to conceive, Ned gets the crazy idea to join a talent search for lesbians, where the 250,000 pesos cash prize will allow her to undergo artificial insemination. The scenario itself is poignant to process, with Ned having to let herself be exploited for entertainment. The film, with its mediocre set design of a talent show, exposes society's ailment of turning people into a sport. The filmmakers might have envisioned a grander production design for the series of talent searches that Ned has to go through, but somehow the lackluster result became a biting mockery of the system that availed such commodity. And people shouldn't be an object of humor because of their sexual preference, or any other characteristic the majority of society deems "different." Hence, the talent show scenes were a giveaway (not sure if it was intended to be a satire, or if the filmmakers were beating a deadline, but the talent show scenes somehow worked) because it is clear Ned will win the tilt due to her competitors' clear lack of talent. The cheap production qualities of the talent contest (which, again if it was intentional, should deserve a round of applause) echoed the cheapness of novelty entertainment, where people allow themselves to be entertained at the expense of others' misery.
Ned’s character is palpably real, and Angeli Bayani plays Ned with such passion and vulnerability, avoiding stereotypes in her committed performance.
Another actress worthy of recognition is Maxene Eigenmann, who plays Ashley, a dance instructor who prepares Ned for the talent show. Eigenmann is an underrated actress. Even in Adolfo Alix Jr.'s "Romeo at Juliet" back in 2010, Eigenmann showed that she can handle complex performances like it's nobody's business. In "Ned's Project," she plays a conflicted woman, clearly running way from a traumatic past. But we don't see that until later, because Ashley masks her fears and insecurities with a rock-solid facade.
One of the film's best scenes is when sexual tension erupts between Ned and Ashley. I loved the part where Ned performs onstage and Ashley just stares at her, as if in a trance. It is perhaps the turning point of the film. Everything stopped. For a moment, everything was perfect.
Ned is a very wonderful character because she is so flawed, and yet you cannot resist to love her. You want her to succeed in her objective. Ned’s weaknesses are strengths in disguise. The decision alone to bear a child and solely raise that child defined Ned as a brave human being. Choosing to be responsible for a human life is no ordinary feat, much more so that a single lesbian woman made that decision.
“Ned’s Project” also tackles society’s prejudice against members of the LGBT community in passing. Ned’s sister (Ana Abad Santos), though loving and compassionate, isn’t a fan of Ned’s relationship with Gladys. Ashley’s aunt, on the other hand is a textbook homophobic. But what sets "Ned's Project" apart from other queer films is that it elevates the queer discourse beyond the usual elements of gratuitous sex, prejudice and identity. The film focuses on Ned alone, as she takes on the world, armed only with her burning desire to be happy, to feel whole, on equal footing with the rest. And if a gay, or a lesbian can be happy the same as a straight person without reservations, then a certain cinematic justice has been achieved, at least.
My only regret about the film is the underdevelopment of Ashley's character. I didn't quite like how the film ended, and perhaps it would be better if the filmmakers kept Ashley's disappearance a mystery. Somehow, that creative decision lessened the emotional and social impact of the material, yet thankfully it does not rob the film entirely of its charm.