Jason Paul Laxamana’s 100 Tula Para kay Stella offers a pragmatic approach to a tale of unrequited love in an ethereal synthesis of time, poetry and music whilst wrapped in the grounded, hard edges of life’s reality.
The film starts with the introduction of the typical nerdy, stuttering wallflower Fidel (JC Santos) and the typical rebellious, full-of-angst rock chick Stella (Bela Padilla). For more than 1/4 of the film, these two lead characters showed nothing but typical facade after facade, and their one-dimensional characterizations didn’t seem to be enough for the audience to fully invest and understand who these human beings are, and why they make the decisions they make. Aside from Stella offering her jacket to cover up Fidel’s stained pants, and Fidel offering Stella a Sunday night of tutoring session for their midterms, what else do these characters have to offer other than the obvious? Who are they? It was a challenge that a movie-goer needs to surpass, until the second act happened — everything made sense from there on out.
The second act begins to show the film’s layers, and what its major theme is: growth within time. The growth of the characters was an immense pleasure to see as they slowly shed their veneers, as if truly getting to know a couple of people without their feet forward or having their best smiles fronting their shiny white teeth. Fully realizing these characters truly for their vulnerability and weakness, as slowly the film establishes the backstories of both Fidel and Stella, will have you invested as to what will happen next. How the characters evolved gave a metaphorical manifestation in Fidel’s written poems through a timelapse of psychological progressive expansion. From being way too conscious in his poem 1, by not knowing the right words to say, what metaphors rhyme to one another, and a couple of erasures here and there, up to poem 100, where it just took a couple of words for him to say what his heart really felt for Stella. The journey to maturity in his poems beautifully reflected the journey to maturity in his life, and it felt raw and heartfelt. As if Fidel was the book of 100 poems; he completed himself during those years, gave everything he got, grown and matured, nurtured himself with inspiration, with the hopes of being enough for the love of his life.
The art direction played a huge part of capturing the psyche of the film’s characters. Act one was a glittery, rock and roll montage of music and Fidel’s too-good-to-be-true poems, which reflected their juvenile personalities, indecisive of what to do, and naive to the world’s reality. Then, a shift to the second act, where it wasn’t as colorful as it used to be — the use of gritty textures and a more somber mood to the scenes, atmospheric to the mentality of both characters, as they learn about life’s more-often-than-not harsh ordeals, and not every dream is served in a silver platter.
Can we talk about Bela Padilla and JC Santos’ riveting and grounded performances? I didn’t see the actors; I saw the characters that were brought to life, in every angle and in every nuance. As if for two hours, two different lives were presented in front of me — no vanity, no holds barred — they gave what the tone of the film needed at the right place, and at the right time. The best film casting in Philippine cinema to date, perhaps since John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo in One More Chance.
Although the film rises to several occasions and has more than a couple of redeeming factors, it does suffer several bumps here and there, most notably is its inability to sustain subplots after another, which the film is rich in. I could pinpoint several characters coming out of nowhere, acting very significant, but substantially irrelevant to the story itself, and ultimately left hanging without any closures. Moreover, director Laxamana’s political stance to drug vendetta — the scene where Fidel’s professor, played by Ana Abad Santos, breaks down and confesses that her daughter is in rehab for drug use, felt very random and irrelevant both to the story and the character. For a theme as heavy handed as drugs, it didn’t feel smooth for it to be just a casual 3-minute subplot, wherein both the story and the character could survive without.
I also find that the film could have captured the essence of time a little better in terms of the characters’ physicality. Fidel in his freshie days looked exactly the same several years later when he graduated; Bela Padilla wiped off her black lipstick by the second hour — but nothing much to it, really. It felt like it wasn’t enough to throw in pop culture references here and there to give the audience the sense of time. The aesthetics of these time periods could’ve been displayed more elaborately.
Overall, 100 Tula Para kay Stella is unexpected, non-conforming, and as current as today’s millenials, but at the same time speaks to both xennials and gen x’ers, as the classic theme of unrequited love is ultimately timeless. Beautifully shot, powerfully acted and thoughtfully written, this is a film that I would recommend.