‘Billie & Emma’ review: Earnest throwback to adolescence

Samantha Lee’s ‘Billie & Emma’ neatly meshes different adolescent struggles into something nuanced yet deeply affecting coming-of-age tale.

The beauty of Billie & Emma goes beyond being a mere vehicle for lesbian representation. By having teenagers as its leads, the film’s coming-of-age elements stand out, ultimately making the lesbian relationship a valuable supporting player to the character arcs in display. Apart from exploring one’s sexuality, the narrative encompasses a blanket of issues that resonates to a wide audience. It challenges homophobic prejudices, religious bigotry and teen pregnancy stigmas. It’s also about contemplating on abortion and young ladies mustering authority over their bodies despite being undermined by a deprecating society.

And with the weight of those themes mentioned, it’s an impressive feat that writer/director Samantha Lee is able to convey them in such a lighthearted film. It feels grounded and nostalgic, quite similar to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita. If Lee’s Baka Bukas tackles millennial lesbian relationships set in the digital age, Billie & Emma lies on the opposite spectrum as its plot takes place in the late ‘90s – an analog era where mobile gadgets are still uncommon and developing an attraction for someone is mainly founded on long stares and personal touches.

Emma (Gabby Padilla) and Billie (Zar Donato) reading Rita Mae Brown’s ‘Rubyfruit Jungle.’

Newcomer Zar Donato plays a lesbian transfer student Billie who’s been exiled by her parents to an all-girl rural Catholic school. She hopes to pass the semester with zero drama, but with her masculine appearance and unabashed attitude sticking out like a sore thumb, several offhand comments are sure to be passed around. Guided by her aunt (Cielo Aquino), Billie’s arc is about finding her place in the school hierarchy and ultimately in life. In here, Donato’s raw and charismatic performance makes her a perfect casting choice.

Elsewhere, Billie catches the attention of a bi-curious star pupil Emma (Gabby Padilla) who runs the risk of being expelled after getting herself pregnant. Meanwhile, her mom (Beauty Gonzales) who treats her more like a best friend, acts so casual about it that its played to a comedic effect. This unusually chill mother-daughter dynamic proves to be a wise decision as the film avoids excessive drama. While Emma is already a strong character to begin with, there’s still plenty of room to grow for a young girl who’s exploring her sexuality and taking charge of life altering decisions. Padilla offers complexity and you can easily tell in her portrayal that the actress shows a range of emotional maturity that goes well beyond her age.

As Billie and Emma begin to interact, what transpires next is the sugar rush of puppy love depicted perhaps in its purest form. The film may be guilty on acting out romantic tropes but it gives a renewed sense by having lesbian teens at its center. Not to mention that the chemistry between the two actresses feels so natural and sincere. It takes flight during the melancholic silences as emotions slowly creep into your core. Denise Santos’ musical scoring does a fine job in dropping the required emotional beats per scene.

Billie and Emma staring at the ceiling, listening to Hungry Young Poets’ ‘Firewoman.’

Also contributing to the film’s genuine tone is how it essentially serves as a huge throwback to high school years. There’s a sweet nostalgia brought by reliving embarrassing moments such as listing down your crushes, secretly passing love notes and feeling overwhelmed by your first kiss. The film sends the right amount of giggles by utilizing Emma’s amusing best friends Twinkle (Shara Dizon) and Honey (Hanna Francisco).

While the screenplay can be a rough gem at times – there is a lack of urgency in the conflict and some questionable decisions are made by some characters – it’s one of those rare films that ends up poignant without even needing a solid conclusion. The pro-choice message becomes clear: women should have an absolute autonomy over their lives. Lee has a tight grip on her material. She designs her characters with discernible love and care – you can easily tell that this feels deeply personal to her.

Billie & Emma hits hard without hammering on its defiant themes. Rising above queer themes, it serves as a beacon of light for those struggling with their individuality. Warm and fuzzy feelings guaranteed.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Samantha Lee, ‘Billie & Emma’ stars Gabby Padilla, Zar Donato, Cielo Aquino, Beauty Gonzalez, Hanna Francisco, Shara Dizon and Ryle Paolo Santiago. Run time: 100 minutes.

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