Raw, neo-realistic The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros) captures the street life of Manila's slums like no other film. Strike another plus effect of the digital age, where cameras can wander to and fro with far less restriction. From the first muddied images of a solitary orchid floating with a rivulet of trash, we're taken to unexplored cinematic neighborhoods—and then we meet the mesmerizing 12-year old diva protagonist Maximo Oliveros (Nathan Lopez).
Lopez is unforgettable and carries the full weight of the film admirably. Sporting a flamboyant wardrobe of striking tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops, Maxi instantly draws attention with his over the top diva walk—with swishy hip movements that Marilyn Monroe would die for. Maxi is a helluva lot skinnier than Marilyn, so he'd certainly get daily beatings if he lived in the good ol' urban U.S.A. But aside from the good natured teasings (and one pseudo "rape" scene), the Manila slums generally accept Maxi's gig humanely.
In fact, his immediate family surrounds him with unconditional love and diligently protects him. The youngest child of widower Paca (Soliman Cruz), Maxi has dropped out of school to act as surrogate "wife," cooking and cleaning and caring for his father and two older brothers—sullen Boy (Neil Ryan Sese) and outgoing Kuya Bogs (Ping Medina). To get by, Paca steals and sells cell phones and runs numbers, but the ante is raised big time when murder is thrown into the mix.
Paca's lifestyle is threatened when a new cop (J.R. Valentin as Victor) is assigned to the neighborhood beat, especially when Maxi develops an instant crush on the handsome rookie policeman and flirts unabashedly with him. Sexually ambiguous Victor forms a platonic friendship with the twelve-year old, yet homo-erotic tensions are painfully palpable and lingering—most notably in the film's final poignant moments (a homage to The Third Man).
Although a murder investigation carries the plot forward, the most interesting aspect of the film revolves around Maxi and his burgeoning first love. Director Auraeus Solito keeps his camera squarely behind Maxi, playfully showing early comical scenes of the boy and his diva buddies staging a "Miss Universe Pageant" before quieter serious scenes that couple Maxi's longing with Christian imagery. Note when Maxi follows Victor in prayer in church. While mimicking his movements, Maxi's eyes betray his lust as they dart back and forth between his newfound love interest and his own place before the altar. This is later linked more closely when Maxi examines Victor's crucifix, and even more intensely when he tenderly cares for his bloodied object of affection as did the disciples after the crucifixion. It's a metaphoric mix worthy of a Leonard Cohen song, equating the purity of Maxi's love with the spiritual. That innocence inevitably shatters, and is artfully handled by Solito and screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto.
It's rare enough for a film to paint profound imagery that lasts even a day longer, but it's even more rewarding when the source comes from a locale and culture that has long been under exposed in the U.S. In Filipino and Tagalog, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is a gem of an indie film that works on a personal level while showing a humanitarian ideal—how society can non-judgmentally accept a flamboyant diva boy into the larger family of man. And that is a huge selling point—for both the filmmaker and for the Philippines.