It’s not much of a surprise to discover that John Denver Trending is the feature debut of writer-director Arden Rod Condez. Given the opportunity to play in the big leagues, it feels as though Condez seized the opportunity to inelegantly amass every thought that passed through his head on any number of subjects, from internet bullying culture to the current state of political and socioeconomic affairs in his home country of The Philippines, where the film is also set. It follows, then, that John Denver Trending is an ambitious affair, but also entirely overstuffed, to the point that it loses anything resembling focus or cogency. Still, there’s a certain innate pleasure to watching a filmmaker swing for the fences rather than play it safe, and in that respect, Condez’s film certainly holds appeal.
In telling the tale of the titular 14-year-old boy, who is caught on video beating a fellow student for a wrongful accusation of theft, Condez renders The Philippines as a country caught between the past and the present. Elder generations discuss spells and curses, consulting “witch doctors” to enact revenge, while the younger generation lives its life through phone screens and social media posts, where vengeance is just a click away. Run-down houses and schools dot the beaten landscape, the juxtaposition of nature and technology symbolizing a country in search of a contemporaneous identity. Police officers use oppression and intimidation in an effort to obtain “the truth,” while accused parties remain guilty until proven innocent. Meanwhile, a penniless young boy with a name as American as apple pie acts as cipher for the audience, a mere pawn in a game enacted by a capitalistic hierarchy that pits the lower class against one another to distract and destroy.
John Denver Trending works best in its quietest moments, simply capturing the hardscrabble, quotidian details of its characters’ lives. The film’s naturalism feels authentic and lived-in, and the non-professional actors work in concert to further convey this sense of realism. Condez’s imagistic instincts likewise support the film’s minor key strengths, and he would have been wise to trust these aesthetic choices, which reliably communicate more than his over-busy, heavy-handed script. The ending is especially perplexing, a mixture of melodrama and cynicism that feels wholly unearned, existing seemingly only for shock value. An informational card that pops up immediately after the film’s close pushes the entire enterprise into something bordering on the reprehensible, forcing viewers to reevaluate Condez’s true intent, and likely leaving only a sense of utter bewilderment. Condez would do well to heed a bit of idiomatic advice from the internet generation he seems to despise so much: pick a lane.
Published as part of NYAFF 2020 — Dispatch 2.