Wednesday, June 28, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Saving Sally

There are two things teen rom-coms get right: the girl always falls for the transparently pond-scummy dude and she treats her nice-guy best friend like dirt. Considering how many teen tearjerkers get released in the Philippines, Sally really should have known better, but her tastes run more towards geeky fare. However, poor Marty might turn out to be more resourceful than he looks in Avid Liongoren’s Saving Sally (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Like Roddy Piper in They Live, Marty can tell the world is mostly full of monsters, but Sally isn’t one of them. She is a cool, down-to-earth chick, who invents steampunky gadgets and shares his passion for geek culture. Despite their friendship, he secretly carries a torch for her, but he is too shy to express his feelings. He is also concerned for her in a more immediate sense. Her parents are so controlling, it always requires a fair degree of trickery for her to get out of the house for any length of time. Plus, he has a clear enough idea how she gets her bruises, even though he never challenges her alibis and denials.

Then one day, Sally suddenly announces she has a boyfriend, who is older and cockier than Marty. Of course, he can see Nick for who he is: a giant phallic-shaped organ. Nevertheless, he agrees to act as a go-between, giving him an opportunity to confirm all his suspicions. As a further complication, Marty’s heartburn comes just when a professional publisher starts to take notice of his work.

The way Liongoren integrates his live action actors (Marty, Sally, their parents, and sometimes Nick) with the animated backdrops and background monsters is wondrously idiosyncratic. Don’t call it quirky—this is some of the most comprehensive world-building you will ever see on film. This is the real world, not as it looks, but how it feels to live in it as a nebbish, artistic teenager.

Frame after frame of Saving Sally are works of art in their own right, but Rhian Ramos and Enzo Marcos are still quite winning as Sally and Marty, respectively. They shrewdly keep the angst restrained and understated, because excessive restraint is part of their problem. They can’t help getting up-staged by the amazing animation, art direction, and matte paintings from time to time, but they still make us care about and identify with these kids in a very personal and direct way.

Granted, Saving Sally tells a relatively simple narrative, but it is a universal story that never feels so simplistic to anyone sharing a similar experience. It is also an absolutely charming valentine to geek culture. Liongoren and co-screenwriters Carlo Ledesma and Charlene Sawit-Esguerra instill sly humor throughout the film, but they are not afraid of a little honest emotion. Very highly recommended, Saving Sally screens Saturday afternoon (7/1), at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.