Review: Senior Year (2010)

Depending on where you fell in the social hierarchy of adolescent politics, high school could have been a pretty great or a pretty terrible time for you. Academic performance aside, the social experience of high school is a beast unlike any other—from the perils of wanting to fit in and perhaps not wanting to stand out too much to puberty and sexual awakenings, the years before one turns 18 are often comprised of equal measures of confusion, anxiety, and excitement.

Jerold Tarog’s 2010 coming-of-age classic Senior Year is a testament to this fact, as it looks back on the final year of a cohort of students at the private Catholic school, St. Frederick’s Academy, meandering through individual perspectives of different students from different cliques and socioeconomic backgrounds throughout the film. Tarog’s film begins with an adult Henry Dalmacio (RJ Ledesma), paralysed by indecision as he sits in his car, conflicted at his decision to attend his high school reunion. He reflects on snapshot memories of his final year, with classmates’ names coming to mind, as well as intramurals, a cockroach-infested baked macaroni at lunchtime, books, his graduation speech, and it all seems like quite the blur.

Henry isn’t exactly the most likable character from there on—he sees two classmates arrive as adults, commenting that one looks the same and the other “[isn’t] so cute anymore”. He then remembers a classmate, Sofia Marasigan (Rossanne de Boda) and we’re taken back in time, as he impatiently studies with her in a library and Sofia struggles to remember the formula for Newton’s second law of motion. It’s clear what high school trope Henry plays—he’s the unfriendly, impatient “nerd” who seemingly thinks he’s better than everyone else. He berates her harshly, stating that she’s eating up too much of his time and that she keeps calling him too much at home “as if they’re close”, telling her that she’s behaving like a stalker. And well, it’s mean and any woman who remembers the feeling of rejection at 16, will empathise with Sofia.

The reverie ends and the adult Henry hits his forehead, saying “motherchucker”. Indeed, Henry, you are a motherchucker.

I’m focusing on this opening a great deal because Tarog does a great job of setting the scene. We’ve all been there—at least for those of us who’ve attended a high school reunion. The anxiety of showing up, seeing people you do and don’t recognise, and really, there’s almost something macabre about the fascination of wanting to see who’s done well and who hasn’t—those who’ve “peaked”, as we often say. And for some, while a high school reunion may be a period for reminiscing, it can also be a time of shame (see: Henry) or pain, for those who will be confronting the ghosts of their past for the first time in a very long time.

If we zoom out, the casting of Senior Year is admittedly what saves the film for me. Aside from the adult cast, all of the students are played by actual students and I must say, it is incredibly refreshing to see 16 year olds that actually look like 16 year olds—from the awkward 2010s hair, the fashion that did not age gracefully a decade later, and of course, the sweltering Manila heat and humidity that’s a curse on any teenage girl’s skin. I appreciate the realism here and I’m sure that audiences who saw the film during its successful and later extended run at SM Cinemas thought so too.

To cast the students, Tarog actually surveyed hundreds of high school students, asking them to share their own personal stories and experiences—of them, the most interesting 10 were picked out and put through a two-month workshop, and Tarog wrote his screenplay around them. While there’s been a fair share of teen films and television shows that look to tackle any and all issues of “coming-of-age” under the sun, the realism offered by these real-life students allows the resulting narrative of Senior Year to come across in a genuine way, from the delivery of their lines to the lines themselves, it feels like I really am watching life play out for a group of 16-year-olds.

The resulting characters are rich and fully fleshed out, each exemplifying a role in the high school food chain—from the resident “popular girl” Solenn Vergara (Nikita Conwi), the shy Sofia who gradually learns to find her footing, St. Frederick’s very own Daria Morgendorffer, the sardonic Mitch Veloso (Celina PeƱaflorida, later Ina Feleo), to the mysterious Jackie Bunda (Francez Bunda) who doesn’t show up to graduation—but without verging into stereotype territory.

Bunda, for one, has an abusive family life that her friends know little about. Her character says little throughout the film, but she is keen observer as Tarog gives us a window into her life at home, her father trading their DVD player for a small baggie of methamphetamines. She quietly carves away at a bar of soap, watching her parents argue and the frame is positioned in such a way where's she's in focus and her parents' gesticulations just outline the shot.

In addition, Tarog does a great job of realistically addressing the different issues that LGBTQ students face at this phase in their lives, especially within a Catholic educational institution as well as in a country where, despite the fact that homosexuality is generally socially acknowledged, discrimination still remains and little legal rights are afforded. For one, there’s Carlo Larada (Daniel Clavecilla Medrana, later Arnnold Reyes) who grapples with being bullied by his male peers for being effeminate. When his physical education teacher points out that his classmates probably think he’s “bakla”—a person who was biologically assigned with a male gender at birth but has taken on female or effeminate characteristics—he vehemently asserts that he doesn’t care as he’ll never see them again soon enough. Carlo says to his friends that this simply is who he is, but doesn’t go as far as self-identifying as queer in any way.

Then there’s Sofia Marasigan (Rossanne de Boda) who’s been receiving letters from a secret admirer who turns out to be a girl. When Sofia’s deeply religious father finds the letters, he tells her to remember how she was raised and reads verses of the Bible to her, despite her insistence that she's done nothing wrong. The scene is familiar to me, having heard similar stories from Filipino friends who've experienced the “religion as an antidote” approach to parenting when they came out to their own parents.

Exemplifying different socioeconomic backgrounds, cliques, and personas alike, Tarog’s cast of characters are a varied, complex group. I'd say more but I'd only risk spoiling it for you. What I can guarantee, however, is that you'll love some, you'll hate some, and hell, they'll probably even remind you of yourself or people you knew.

Each with their own back stories, these characters are a refreshing reminder that a coming-of-age film set in a high school doesn’t have to be some super-slick, glossy, idealised and romanticised image of the high school experience. Beyond their lives at school and the governing rule of high school politics, these are really just 16-year-olds trying to figure out who they are and in its recognition of that, that’s what makes Senior Year work.

Senior Year is currently available for streaming on Vimeo.

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore.
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