Shift sells itself as an offbeat romance film, about the boyish Estela (Yeng Constantino) and the proudly gay Trevor (Felix Roco). While this is its heart, it is not its spirit.
The story follows Estela more than it does Trevor. Once, strolling through the quaint shops at the Cubao Expo, she spots a Che Guevara portrait, the bold reds of the artwork matching her own fiery dyed hair; she asks Trevor to take her picture with it. This is more than a whimsy: she studied sociology in school, and she knows what Che stands for. There are no flashbacks in Shift, but the film teases with details here and there, and we figure out that she used to be an activist—a rough, full-blooded tibak, a past life that corroborates with her boyish manners.
Now she spends her days, and nights, in call centers, taking up jobs to sustain her impractical passions. She answers a phone interview once, with remarkable confidence and skill—but underneath that compelling corporate talk is the contradiction between her past convictions and her present place. She keeps this simmering irony under wraps, mostly unspoken, though it manifests in her lethargic attitude to work: she often comes in late, and her performance has not been up to standard.
What keeps her going, however, is one of the film’s revelations. Shift displays genuine empathy for the call center life. It inhabits this world, takes an insider viewpoint. The film is less concerned with justifying the dignity of this kind of work, than with simply telling its stories. Estela may detest the System, but she finds genuine friends in her colleagues through chats at the pantry, drinks on team-building night, and costumes on anniversary parties. And so it is heartbreaking when the company is forced to close shop as the international trade winds shift direction—such is the industry’s unique instability.
Of course, for Estela, there is also Trevor, whose gender identity allows them to instantly strike a friendship, although this same identity becomes the obstacle and source of confusion down the road. Shift tackles these themes of diversity and acceptance naturally, almost as a necessary complement to its setting of a youthful industry.
When Estela tells Trevor that she is straight despite her tomboy looks, he jokes that she is in fact a gay man trapped in a lesbian’s body. The film often portrays Estela like this: a person of a myriad passions trapped in one call center worker’s body. She would love to continue practicing her photography, to keep on writing and performing songs, to protest against injustice, but none of those would pay for the rent. So she continues logging in to work, finding solace in Trevor and her other friends. Passions, youth, diversity: Shift is about the millennial and their fleeting desires, transient like their call center jobs.
The millennial spirit shows in Shift’s own presentation. Scenes are swift, paced for the attention-deficit. Characters are shown listlessly scrolling through social media. Early in the film, in one such scene, Estela comes across a meme redefining Y.O.L.O.: “you only live online.” Indeed, a substantial amount of dialogue is delivered in this film in the form of online conversations. More than a gimmick, this presentation is integral to Shift’s milieu. The chats are not always minor, one-to-one conveyances. Estela at one point juggles between several chat windows; while she is occupied with responding to Trevor, another one of her contacts notices how sluggish her replies are coming. This is plot progression and character development in cyberspace, realistically portrayed on film.
The millennial spirit is also there in Shift’s myopic lensing; we often watch Estela and Trevor in close-ups. The cinematography is focused, almost self-absorbed and rarely taking note of its wide surroundings, as if to suggest that its characters are all we need to see, that their conflicts are all that we need to study. When the film breaks this formula, it often gives us meaningful shots, like when Estela meets Trevor after a long absence: the two facing each other in profile, with a glass window included in the frame, but the reflection on the glass capturing only Estela, alone.
The motif of short-sightedness extends to Estela’s treatment of her family. Her mother calls several times, but is always unseen. Her young sister comes to live with her, but this sister is largely ignored. While Estela deals with her personal troubles, she unintentionally pushes her family out of the frame.
To a young woman like her—confused, adrift, uncertain—the future is precarious. She poses a question to Trevor: one year from now, where will they be? She could barely imagine an answer herself. So when the film ends with a question, to Estela in a job interview, of where she sees herself in five years, she could only stare blankly: at a loss for words, her confidence gone.
Yet for all its depiction of youthful confusion, Shift is a film that renders its characters’ interactions and dialogue with unmatched clarity. Many contemporary films attempt to capture the millennial language, those subtle defining marks of conversations in this second decade of the 21st century, but they rarely reproduce it as well as Shift does, and it is the film’s great pleasure. It feels so natural, so authentic, that Estela’s predicaments never feel scripted. Her struggles could so easily have been that of a close friend, or your own. It is as if the filmmakers merely overheard her story, already fully-formed, escaping from the tremendous noise of this young generation, and all they had to do was shift the relevant scenes into view.
Film still screen-captured from the official trailer.