Review: ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ (2017)

A standard Star Cinema rom-com, with a few delightful tricks.

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Gerald Anderson and Arci Muñoz, as Digs and Sam, contemplates their relationship during a stay-cation in a hotel, in ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ (2017).

To provide an upfront summary of this review: ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ is your standard rom-com, cast in the same old Star Cinema mold, with a few nice tricks up its tried-and-tested sleeve. That this movie is not groundbreaking should not be taken against it—and the story itself gives us a reason why.

Warning: this review includes spoilers.

Before anything else, let us mention the film’s worst moment: a minute or so is spent on product placement in the middle of the action. It is not as blatant or tacky as certain MMFF entries have been, but neither is it subtle. Jarring advertisements like this destroy storytelling flow. At least, the scene does not take too long. It cuts out before audiences can start hurling tomatoes at the screen.

Can We Still Be Friends? is made by the same core filmmaking team behind crowd-favorite indie Sleepless, and the horror-romance Ang Mananggal Sa Unit 23B (AMU23B), also an indie. Both films were entries at different editions of the QCinema Film Festival; Can We Still Be Friends?, therefore, represents this filmmaking band’s crossing into mainstream cinema. The team’s past work provides a convenient standard against which their latest work can be measured.

Cinematographer Tey Clamor and production designer Nestor Abrogena provide the most consistently pleasant aspect of these films: visual appeal. Can We Still Be Friends? overflows with carefully-composed shots and some neat, detailed sets. You’d probably want to live in Sam (Arci Muñoz) and Digs’ (Gerald Anderson) cozy condo unit after seeing this movie. The camera framing is always attractive, and often meaningful—like in that scene when Digs has to leave Sam alone in her home, and the shot is split in half between the loneliness of Sam in her room and the stark emptiness of the kitchen as Digs exits.

Director Prime Cruz does what he can with the love team given to him. Muñoz performs well: she is alternatingly affecting and bubbly, depending on the mood required by the scene, but always effectively animated. Anderson, on the other hand, is fine in moments calling for restraint, but is a little too stiff in crucial scenes demanding force. Brian Sy, who plays Dino, Digs’ comic-relief best-buddy, is decisively more fluent. The most notable of the rest of the ensemble is Juan Miguel Severo as JM, Sam’s gay best friend, who seems purposely cast in this film for a climactic voice-over montage, where he delivers the kind of stirring spoken-word poetry that made him famous.

Sam and Digs’ antics are not entirely endearing in this film. It is hit-or-miss, so if you are not already a fan of the Arci-Gerald love team going into this movie, then you might not be convinced of their chemistry. When we do root for the couple’s getting back together later in the movie, it may be due more to a general desire for happy endings than a particular, earned chemistry between the leads.

On the bright side, Can We Still Be Friends? proves that Prime Cruz is at his best when his scenes are wordless. There is the office party scene where we watch Sam dancing alone, in slo-mo, to the tune of misery, in front of a projector—a decidedly hipster scene, but oh, the feels! There is also the final shot before the credits, which eloquently mirrors the movie’s first shot, contrasting Sam and Digs’ relationship before and after the break-up. (Sleepless uses the same technique of mirrored first-and-final shots.)

Editor Galileo Te produces a smoothly-paced movie, but no amount of editing precision can save the film from dragging into the standard-issue melodrama seemingly mandatory now in mainstream rom-coms. A scene that would have cut to black, remaining wordless, in Prime Cruz’s previous films is here empowered to carry on, and be dramatically verbose about the characters’ feelings. (One such scene is Digs’ surprise reunion with Sam at the gaming arcade; the scene is exciting, thrilling, and tense as Sam finds Digs and for a long, silent moment just looks at him—but then they start speaking, unnecessarily.) This is unfortunate, because it suggests that the movie does not trust its actors to effectively convey feelings, and the audience to successfully understand these gestures, without the use of words.

This brings us to writer Jen Chuaunsu’s contributions. While Can We Still Be Friends? is often too verbal, there are also many moments when the dialogue is delightfully pregnant with meaning. For example, the scene when Sam asks Digs to help her zip up her dress, to which he replies that it no longer fits her, and she should replace it already; or when she rants about feeling inadequate in her job, and he similarly suggests that if it no longer makes her happy, she should resign; or when, after they have broken-up, he says they should accept the first rent offer they got for their condo unit, just to be ‘done with it’; and even when she remarks that Digs’ car has been breaking down too often, costing them too much—in each case, they are dealing with everyday matters, but at the same time they are also talking about the status of their relationship. (Incidentally, and meaningfully, when Digs’ car breaks down beyond repair, that is when Sam and Digs start to earnestly keep distance from each other, directly leading into the three-month transition in the story.) Such small subtleties made Sleepless and AMU23B a delight to watch, and it is still present here.

Nevertheless, Can We Still Be Friends? is less thematically complex than Prime Cruz’s previous films, in the sense that there is no obvious social question being tackled. Gone are the lonely characters living under alienating conditions; the characters of Can We Still Be Friends? are in conflict with each other, not with some illness of society at large. The main concerns of the lead characters are the same ones driving many mainstream rom-coms: love and career.

This is where the neatest trick of the movie comes into play. Throughout the film, as Sam and Digs confront the challenges of their relationship, we also watch them struggle with their professional life. Sam is constantly overshadowed at the ad agency by a colleague, Emmanuelle (played by Emmanuelle Vera). Digs has quit his day job to follow his passion, attempting to strike gold by getting his comics published (recall Saving Sally?). Usually, in movies like this, the resolution of the love problem accompanies a turn for the better in the characters’ parallel career problems—but not here. There is no sudden professional breakthrough; Digs channels his frustration with Sam into his drawings, but he still gets rejected; Emmanuelle keeps getting promoted, at Sam’s expense. The required change comes from within: it is when Sam learns to appreciate Emmanuelle’s success, instead of envying it, does she come to accept Digs’ shortcomings, leading into their reunion. The value of acceptance in relationships is an old idea, but the way it is realized in this film is subtle and rather clever.

And acceptance is perhaps just what the film itself needs. Held against the achievements of its filmmakers’ previous works, it may be found wanting. But there are countless ways to judge a movie, and there are many valid reasons to see this film regardless of the results of those criticisms. If it interests you, go ahead, watch it, and it just might have what you’re looking for in a movie. It may not blow you away, but it surely won’t leave you with hard feelings, either. You can definitely still be friends with it afterwards.

The featured image for this article is a screen-capture from the film’s official trailer on YouTube.

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