1st Sem is about teenager Maru (Darwin Yu), who begins the movie with his entire family seeing him off as he goes to college in Manila to study engineering. It isn’t very long, however, before Maru caves under the pressure of being so far away from home at a high level university. He drops out and returns to his hometown, much to the dismay of his mother Precy (Lotlot de Leon). The strained relationship between him and his mother comes to the fore as he continues to live under her roof, seemingly determined to do nothing to better himself.There’s a very simple and relatable story at the core of this film. It is pretty much an eternal fact that children will have dreams thrust upon them by their parents. Everyone grows up being told that parents are toiling for the sake of their children, providing them better opportunities than were ever available to themselves. This film, at its best, documents where that can go wrong, in spite of people just trying their best. There is clear merit in where the film begins and where it ends up, the script picking at the tensions that go unspoken in the relationship between a well-meaning, hardworking mother and her diligent but unready son.There’s really something there, but the movie tends to bury it in excess incident. Rather than have these characters really reckon with that tension, it chooses to distract with a succession of loud, mildly comedic scenes that don’t really serve to benefit the characters. It ends up overplaying the tension, with Precy made to become a cartoon version of herself as she seeks some sort of vague retribution against her own son. And on his part, Maru immediately devolves into a do-nothing troglodyte, displaying none of the intellect or panache that would have made his parents believe in him in the first place.A story like this tends to benefit from a quieter, more nuanced approach, the closeness and smallness of the subject matter necessitating a closer adherence to reality. This film does get to those nuances eventually, these characters ultimately baring their souls in ways that feel completely true to the situation. But getting there can be a real slog. While it is understandable within the context of the story that these characters might have trouble dealing directly with their issues, after a while, given everything else that they’re doing, it starts to feel like empty stalling.The treatment is pretty stage-y, which doesn’t really work all that well with the type of story they’re telling. This is a small tale treated like melodrama. Small bits of humor are treated as broad bits. The film might have benefitted from a more restrained directorial hand, giving these characters the space to just find themselves on screen. It would have left a lot to the actors, but they would have been able to carry the weight. Lotlot de Leon is able to bring the character’s arc to the fore in spite of all of the noise written into the script. And Darwin Yu does make you believe in his character’s insecurities.1st Sem has a lot going for it conceptually. In concept, it tells a very relatable story about the inherent challenges that arise between parent and child as people grow and dreams diverge. There is a gentle story in here about how things don’t go according to plan, and how even the most reasonable, well-meaning people can go astray. But that isn’t totally what makes it up on screen. The film seems uncomfortable with the smallness of its story and tries to sell it as something bigger. And that’s where things get awkward.
1ST SEM IS NOW SHOWING IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.