Squeezed snug between life’s constants of birth, death, and taxes, is the quintessential Filipino high school experience.
For better or for worse, high school life is without a doubt a treasure trove of memorable moments, a rich well of sweet souvenirs whose depth we only realize in hindsight – and that’s okay. Our younger selves are obliged to live in the moment – to find friends, to ask a prom date out, to grow bangs in defiance, and to embrace the mess that is shitting yourself at school – because our current selves know it only gets easier from there.
Such are the memories that Glenn Barit’s Cleaners walks us through one more time. This 2019 film first wowed viewers as part of that year’s QCinema International Film Festival lineup, where it won Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Audience Choice Award in the Asian New Wave Category. Since then, it’s been featured as an official selection in prestigious international film festivals in Busan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Torino, Italy.
Through six eclectic episodes, we ride the ups and downs of a group of high school students from a fictional catholic school in Tuguegarao City whose individual ideas of cleanliness are derived from figuratively indelible dirt, be it a poop-filled panty or corruption at large.
This Gawad Urian Best Picture nominee not only feels nostalgic but looks nostalgic as well. Barit’s visual style for the film presents a stop-motion story that made use of almost 40,000 individually-scanned stills in greyscale, mimicking that mimeograph paper-feel that was typical in old textbooks.
Only the outfits of our high school heroes are colored in by bright highlighters, as if serving as lessons from readings that we spent too much time making pretty instead of actually applying.
With no apparent narrative, the film goads us: “trust the process.” By the end of it, we’re glad we did, because its comical chaos bore familiar fruits we’re only happy to eat twice. Besides, which part of high school ever went our way anyway?
Still, we found ourselves relating to the rubble we stood atop of once upon a time. That’s why it’s hard to spoil a story like Cleaners; one can only conjure themes, moments, or events which drew a tear or two.
The satisfying ironies
Archetypes abound in Cleaners, because of course, it’s about high school. The fun thing about them is that though they may be annoying at times, they end up becoming endearing to the audience because they – and, back then, we – turned out to be victims of circumstance one and all.
We may have dressed differently, but don’t deny it – the pretentious pabidang maldita shitting herself in public, or the committed emo kids who ditch the black-clad look to do a dance number for Buwan ng Wika – we are them, victims one and all.
The communication breakdown
An argument can be made that rumor mills aren’t exclusive to high school life (we’re definitely judging you if you spread gossip back then, though).
So, if that doesn’t count as a unique high school trope, maybe this iconic text message does:
PaTay n dw c AngeLi =((( Huhu,,
PgpRay nan p0h nTn cya (+_+)
d pRen aq mkPnWLa @_@
We rest our case.
The struggle to fit in or stand out
It’s yet another irony, but such is the reality of discovering our identities back in high school. Sad as it is to say, we become either the bully in Francis or the bullied in Allan; either the preppy class president for the attention or the resident recluse for the approval (because, you know, not caring about anything is cool back then); or the truly free-spirited student who’s always chasing the next high.
Whatever we thought we were back then, we were right.
The middle finger to ‘the man’
As a coming-of-age film about Filipino high school students, Cleaners made sure not to leave out its rebels. No, we’re not just talking about the eyeliner-wearing, Typecast-listening scene kids, but also the rebels who find and fight their first love within the halls of high school.
It’s alright if love meant something else for you back then, because the film made certain its young radicals didn’t fight for just a sole reason. They fought to keep the love of their life at the risk of expulsion; they fought to dance to the tune they love even if it meant defying the Prefect of Discipline; and by the love for friends and fellow youth, they fought for what’s right, their bloodline’s biddings notwithstanding.
The kids are alright
That brings us to the satisfying conclusion that, hey, cringe all you want over high school kids, but they will, by hook or by crook, come out swinging for what they believe in.
At the end of the day, these young ones, with sleeves dirty, will still shout at the top of their lungs and do the task that they were meant to do: to shape up, step up, and clean up after themselves.
After all, we turned out all right, didn’t we?
Treat your high school self to a nostalgia trip by catching Cleaners, streaming on UPSTREAM starting September 18.