Dead Kids has been touted as the first Filipino original film made through Netflix.
“Aren’t you tired of getting stepped on by scumbags?” is the disenfranchised and existential inquiry that fuels the youth crime thrills of Dead Kids.
Co-produced with Globe Studios, the movie had its media premiere in November, at the Cinema One Originals Film Festival in Quezon City.
Director Mikhail Red, son of decorated Filipino auteur Raymond Red (Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso), declared that he had co-written this 94-minuter as a love letter to all the alienated individuals of his generation. Red being an elder millennial, almost of an age with his actors, whose characters respond to their disaffection against the rich and entitled of their school by committing a crime for which they are ill-prepared and they have ill-planned for, seems quite genuine in his empathy for the misfit and the marginalized.
Dead Kids has been touted as the first Filipino original film made through Netflix, and Red himself has two movies already on the streaming giant: a horror movie Eerie and the critically acclaimed Birdshot (also our entry for Best Foreign Language Film to last year’s Oscars, albeit it got stopped at the doors of the Academy).
Based on true events, the movie is about a quartet of teens led by the State U shoo-in and protagonist Mark Sta. Maria (Kelvin Miranda), who teams up with fellow bullied batch mates Uy (Jan Silverio), Pao (Khalil Ramos), and Blanco (Vance Larena) to kidnap one of their classmates, the hated, athletic golden boy Chuck “Fucking” Santos (most capably brought to aptly heinous and detestable life by Markus Paterson) during one of his clandestine trips to a high end prostitution club masquerading as a massage parlor (spakol in street cant).
Young ingénue Sue Ramirez (Sunshine Family) plays Sta. Maria’s love interest Janina, while Gabby Padilla plays Yssa, girlfriend of Pao and female addition to the crime crew.
I must admit that the ambition of a crime movie set in an era of social media with young and inexperienced kidnappers helming the mission looked like an interesting proposal. Plus, the trailer was visibly gorgeous, with lighting and camera work that reflected sleekness and grit in contrasting palettes, giving off a similar vibe as 2002’s City of God (another youth and crime movie).
Dead Kids has two things to its advantage.
First that it’s more a coming-of-age story rather than a crime thriller. And thank God because the crime perpetrated—more like clumsily attempted—isn’t just amateur hour, but would likely make any aspiring pro K&R (that’s “kidnap for ransom” in operative speak) agent deep red in the cheeks.
Second, that it does indeed present an authentic and unflinching look at the lower middle class of millennials and Gen Z, those staunchly hung on the bottom rung of the mid class ladder. Some by their fingernails, like our reluctant and boorishly perplexed hero Sta. Maria.
It’s resonantly human to imbue this gang of would-be kidnappers with pathos because they’re disregarded in a time where near limitless knowledge and opportunity through tech is available. The fruits of social media–getting the girl, entering their college of choice, and even just a night of drinks with their classmates–must be doled out, measured, and observed with a miser’s calculation lest they overstep and simply not have enough to even make it through the next semester. This fact is always rubbed in their faces. The result? A blank generation whose frustration and suffering mount and mount because everything is offered to them on paper but nothing is, in truth, truly available or affordable or purchase.
Sta. Maria, Blanco, Pao, and Uy are those always standing on the outskirts, behind the glass, staring at an oasis just out of reach where the Chuck “Fucking” Santoses of their world rule as virtual nobility through the graces of their drug lord fathers and police vassals.
This is the bullying they cannot stand, although there are also physically hurtful bullies aplenty in their private school’s clean and hallowed halls too.
At one point in the kidnapping, during the crucial act of covering their tracks, the gang all agree to post separate location for their Instagram Stories as an added layer of dissembling. Sta. Maria blanches and sheepishly confesses, when pressed by the rest of the boys, that his Unli Data Package has expired so he can’t post anything until he cobbles together enough pesos to buy another. To which one of the other boys scoffs and offers to share his own data minutes as a hotspot.
The mortification on Sta Maria’s face—more out of being offered the hotspot by his fellow kidnapper rather than an expired data package—is precious, resonant, and genuine. Only pre-paid users will know this legit feeling, a contemporary moment for which there should be a term for, but it hasn’t been invented yet. And in a country whose mobile internet speed is slower than war-torn Syria’s, yet with some of the most expensive connectivity packages, that moment hits home.
“One act to change your life,” declared Blanco at the tail end of his speech before they began their mission to kidnap Chuck Santos from the inner corridors of the maze that is the spakol. It’s not Tyler Durden’s “We’re the middle children of the history, man” but such gravitas in teens, who are basically just still practicing how to converse at that age, can be too much to expect.
And that’s at the core of the intrinsic problem with Dead Kids. That it wants to be a gritty crime thriller in the age of social media, that it wants to be a manifesto of yearning and despair for the disenfranchised millennial and Gen Z, but it manages to bungle both.
I want to expect more from Dead Kids, not just because Red’s previous Birdshot was an impressive showcase of restraint and emotive tension doled out in apt measure that it won the right to be an entry delegate to the Oscar’s (a far cry from the awkward and blathering catastrophe of Eerie, that mistakes ponderousness and awful jump scare timing as replacements for horrific atmosphere), but also since there were so damn many missed chances to imbue these characters with meaningful catharsis and revelation. Something that the violence of a coming-of-age in a crime thriller possesses by design.
But no, Sta. Maria never quite becomes entirely capable or wakes up from being the Iskolar ng Bayan (taunted and teased with lines like “He’s the shit!” for being a good student even when they know he has no choice) cliché who gets commissioned for homework and essays.
Neither is the character of Janina, his love interest, ever fleshed out beyond a few awkward conversations during the school play rehearsals and oddball pronouncements that sound like hastily written inspirational IG-captions. As a result, nothing much is propelling the story except an exercise in a comedy of errors—and not even spectacularly erroneous failure, at that. Certainly it’s not the chaste and deficient bond between Sta Maria. and Janina that I wanted to see.
There’s a scene where the gang are putting on their heist masks that becomes an exercise in droll ineptitude (their Halloween masks are either too small—a Venetian bird mask—or too decorative—a zombie mask with a syringe sticking out of it), that looks like it was made for the LOLs. But that elicited more of a “haha, and tanga” (idiot) facepalm reaction. Ditto for the scenes where they put on awful, fake Chinese and Singaporean accents to demand the ransom.
The most interesting and relatable character arc is also the most empowered one: Blanco, the son of the police officer who is a minion of Uncle Rody (with roots in Davao, I presume?), the drug lord who is also the father of Chuck, the jock they kidnapped. Vance Larena and his glaring, angsty, perennially outraged portrayal of Blanco feels sharp and sans pretense. I would have loved to see more of his character take the lead and become the true leader of the crew, turning them into legit criminals from pansies who can’t even prep their kidnapee’s holding cell with enough rope and duct tape (true to form, nobody pays much attention to the kid who advocates more planning).
For 7 million pesos each in ransom, the gang of misfits and the movie simply don’t go far enough with the thrill or the crime or their own story arcs, though the pacing and story do try to course correct towards the start of the third act. Even then, Dead Kids doesn’t have enough death, destruction, or daring in it to qualify for the annals of the underworld, not even a footnote.
Dead Kids is now streaming on Netflix.
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.