Film Review: Fan Girl (2020)

In the post 2010s information age, the barrier between the personal lives of celebrities and their fans has become more transparent than ever. The pressure on celebrities from management, advertisers, and corporations to post daily on social media has made their most intimate moments another type of performance in of itself. This, coupled with the boundless attention span of fans, has created an insane self-perpetuating parasocial loop. But despite the perceived intimacy, in actuality, neither party ever really knows each other. Fan Girl (2020), written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone, directly engages with this strange reality, interrogating and stripping away the layers of artifice that make up a celebrities’ public persona. By putting a fan in direct contact with their idol, Jadaone forces us to see these larger than life figures as distinctly human, possessing the same personal failures and moral depravities that afflict those closest to us in life. 

Fan Girl (2020) follows Jane (played by Charlie Dizon), a 16 year old stan of prolific Fillipino romantic comedy star Paulo Avelino, through a series of complex events at a mall show promoting his new film If We Fall In Love, ends up in the home of Paulo Avelino (playing himself) for one night. With an initial logline that sounds straight out of a Wattpad fanfiction, Jadaone undergoes a tough tonal balancing act, between the starstruck and idealistic Jane and Avelino, who reveals himself to be much more crude and abrasive than what’s typically shown on screen. The film is mainly shot with a handheld camera that belies a sense of intimacy, allowing us to enter the headspace of both Jane and Avelino, at times literally, as Jane’s idealised view of a life with Avelino is portrayed as a fantasy world awash with gold light. But as the film progresses and as Jadaone draws us deeper into Avelino’s world, the darker things become, less resembling a wish fulfilment scenario and more of a strange psychological thriller. 

Conceptually, the film itself has a metatextual slant. Jadaone, as a filmmaker, is mainly known for high profile romantic comedies, such as That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and Love You to the Stars and Back (2017). While Paulo Avelino is known widely as the dashing leading man of things like the soap opera Bridges of Love (2015), something you could definitely see a teenage girl obsessed with. Fan Girl (2020) can be viewed as both of them playing against type, expanding their dramatic range, while still tinkering with the tropes of the genre that defined their careers. Avelino’s performance is perhaps the most interesting part of the film. By playing himself, Avelino needs to strip both the preconceived ways audiences have perceived him in other films, and how his fans view his personal life via outlets like social media. The Avelino in Fan Girl (2020) is a hard drinking abusive father who is most frequently depicted with an erratic mood, resulting in many scenes of him shouting at a 16 year old girl. The main setting of the film, Avelino’s rural mansion, is perhaps the best reflection of his characterisation, the mansion appearing large and inviting on the outside, yet sparse, decrepit and decaying within its interior. 

The daring artistic swings even include a full frontal nude scene from him, something suited more to the art house than a commercial product made by mainstream talent. One can surmise that this bold turn in Fan Girl (2020) is an attempt by Avelino to show off his dramatic range and pivot away from the usual, fluffier fare he’s known for. But this would somewhat discredit the fascinating tension that the film hinges on, how Avelino at the drop of a hat shifts from a heartthrob with puppy dog eyes sharing his most intimate secrets to a terrifying, abusive monster. 

Romantic comedies as a genre are a frequent source of mockery, which Fan Girl (2020) is not above, poking fun at its tropes with the uber cheesy film within the film If We Fall in Love. However, when considering the reasons for this derision, say: the unrealistic wish fulfilment scenarios, belaboured romances, frequently glamorous costuming and large fan bases of young women. It would not be unfair to suggest that romantic comedies are somewhat misjudged and underestimated, especially as one of the only mainstream genres, within an industry still enraptured by the male gaze, that treats female desire and female pleasure as entirely valid things to be celebrated. It is these same thematic instincts that Jadaone, especially as a female filmmaker, is able to tap into in her portrayal of Jane, the titular fan girl. Jane’s obsession with Avelino is still primarily characterised by her naivete, as evinced by the cutesy moments she envisions with him. But Jadaone never uses Jane as a way to create a blanket critique of romantic comedies and the unrealistic expectations they create for women. Instead romantic comedies are depicted as a vital source of comfort and escapism for many, in this case for those without responsible and protective male figures in their lives, as Jane lives with her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend. 

Moreover, Jadaone eschews making Jane purely a victim under Avelino. The exceptionally raw Charlie Dizon portrays her with a gutsy attitude, playfully testing the limits of Avelino’s comfort zone to unfortunate ends. At times the film can be genuinely uncomfortable in its unflinching honesty, especially in an extended masturbation scene, whose portrayal of pleasure distinctly clashes with a sickening sexual encounter later on in the film. 

However, where Fan Girl (2020) falters is in the relationship between Jane and Avelino. For a film that engages with its subject matter with a degree of nuance and sensitivity, scene to scene interactions can unfortunately operate in terms of emotional absolutes. Eventually as the film progresses, something resembling a rhythm is established: Jane will tease Avelino, Avelino will react violently to her, then while he cools off he opens up emotionally. These scenes still remain watchable because of the strength of Avelino and Dizon’s performances, yet the repetitive nature make the film’s feel grating with the same ideas being exhaustingly belaboured. Furthermore, when Jadaone does decide to up the emotional stakes, with the introduction of Avelino’s secret child and lover, these story elements feel unnecessarily abrupt. Structurally, it feels like Jadaone rushes through the climax to make a cogent link between the personal life of Jane and the abuse she encounters at the hands of men, and the film’s characterisation of Avelino and his moral failures. 

Despite these misgivings, the film's ideas do largely resonate, as Jadaone is able to effectively portray the unfortunate psychological chokehold men have on women in Fillipino society. How they are still typically envisioned as benevolent patriarchal figures, offering protection, warmth and love, yet in reality fail to live up to any standard. As vividly shown in how the platonic ideal of a caring male figure, the dashing, selfless rom com lead is revealed to be as abusive, short tempered and deeply self conscious as everyone else. Jadaone’s film makes something very clear, even though the ways we interact with and envision the concept of the celebrity in the modern age has invariably changed, the behaviour of men has not.

Review by Matthew Chan

This film had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and screened recently at the Jeonju International Film Festival and San Diego Asian Film Festival. It is screening next at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam happening from 2 to 6 June 2021.
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