FREE RANGE (Dennis Marasigan, 2016)
* Official entry, 1st ToFarm Film Festival 2016
The thing about Dennis Marasigan is he knows how to differentiate theater from film. The dialogue in "Free Range," his new advocacy film about free range farming is always compelling. The characters mostly talk about the mundane, especially during the first act, yet the scenes are never boring. The acting invites you to be a part of the conversation.
Unlike Marasigan's last film "Anatomiya ng Korupsyon" (Anatomy of Corruption) which heavily borrowed elements from theater (and rightfully so, since it was based on a play), "Free Range" is entirely cinematic. Al Linsangan III captures the beauty of Coron, Palawan in stunning drone coverage, among others, coupled with Nor Domingo's intimate shots that places the viewer in the middle of conversations. Meanwhile, lead actor Paolo O'Hara delivers admirable restraint in portraying Chito, the son of a lodge owner and influential local businessman (Leo Rialp).
As the film opens, Marasigan quickly establishes the uneasy relationship between father and son through the use of uncomfortable silences. Chito is daunted by his father's shadow, so when the latter is unable to continue managing their family business due to illness, Chito has no choice but to man up and take the reins.
Upon an encounter with a guest who is an expert on free range farming (Michael De Mesa) and due to the scarcity of eggs in Coron, Chito decides to start raising chickens, despite his wife's (Jackie Rice) doubts. Chito sacrifices being away from his wife and their young son, who are both in Manila in pursuit of a business which may not really yield results. But as is with the tenets of business, risk is inevitable.
"Free Range" is not only an advocacy film about free range farming but about boosting local tourism as well. There's even a political subplot that is classic Marasigan, involving the town mayor and big businesses. If you look at it closely, business is always rooted in politics.
I've enjoyed following Chito's journey to grow his business despite forces telling him otherwise. In Marasigan's cinema, characters are always at odds with forces they cannot control, but here, the filmmaker shifts his tone towards optimism, as Chito refuses to cave in under pressure.
As an advocacy film, "Free Range" clearly conveys its intended message, but what makes it richer is the emotional struggle between father and son, the son in need of his father's approval and the father, who loves his son yet can only communicate through tough parenting. When Chito finally tells his father in the hospital that he needs him, the film has justified its existence.
"Free Range" benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Madeleine Nicolas, Jojit Lorenzo and filmmaker Carlos Siguion-Reyna, and the fact that while it is an advocacy film, Marasigan doesn't shove the ideas down our throats.
I've seen Paolo O'Hara go big on acting in 2014's "Sundalong Kanin," so watching him in a subdued performance in "Free Range" is revelatory. O'Hara is really the heart of "Free Range," which could also be considered a coming-of-age story, masked as an advocacy film.