When the internet was first introduced in the Philippines in 1994, nobody would have thought that, at least two decades later, its widespread impact would be massive and life-changing. Nobody would have imagined that an ordinary teenager from a farming village in a rural provincial area would become a nationwide, online sensation overnight. Everything about him becomes a trending topic; even people would want the president to know about him—but not for any good reason, any good cause, or any good aftermath.
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The trending farmboy is 14-year-old John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusao), son of a single mother (Meryll Soriano) who lives as a farmer and cane-work maker. John Denver went trending after a video of him beating up a schoolmate who accuses him of stealing an iPad is uploaded to Facebook. He denies all the accusations, but his erratic behavior and poor economic background give him no favor. The video captioned with a one-sided narrative has already gone viral—without fact-checking, myth-buster, or any chance for clarification. People on the internet either judge him or want a piece of his ordeal for engagement; people around him in real life cut connections with him and some others are obsessed to make him confess. In no time, the non-evident accusation grows to be a non-stop cyber bullying party and public lynching for John Denver, who barely has any chance to defend himself.
Arden Rod Condez, in his directorial debut, claims to write John Denver’s story based on a true event and his own concern for the widespread impact of social media. His stance remains the same from the beginning until the end. In the world, wide, web, a private feud might grow vastly to be a public affair—where everyone seems to have the right to judge, to accuse, and to execute. The most harrowing thing about John Denver Trending is how close the whole ordeal is to the reality. Fast-spreading hoaxes, misinformation, viral mentality, and people’s attraction to aggression seem to be the problems everyone concerns about in the internet—whether you live in the Western part of the world or the Eastern. Condez portrays the impact of the public trial to John Denver with an emotional roller-coaster, which only elevates over time with a colossal descend saved in the end.
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Camera seems to be following John Denver whenever he is; as if there’s no escaping for him. Magpusao, who portrays the main character, exudes the sense of confusion, the fear, and the helplessness in his eyes. He doesn’t seem to be able to stare at people; in fact, he barely stares at anything. His eyes wander around but he doesn’t have the courage to fixate his sight at one point. Magpusao even takes it further as if he doesn’t want the camera to catch him staring. The movie is far from revealing whether John Denver actually steals the iPad or someone else does it, but, every time the titular character denies it, the lump in his throat voices his helplessness against the unfair judgment that rains over him. The movie’s making it more ironic knowing how superstitious and innocently judgmental the society where John Denver lives in real life. It’s as if John Denver Trending shouts that internet connection should also come with education or understanding of internet’s dos-and-donts.
While John Denver Trending cannot avoid to slip into melodrama from moment to moment (while somehow overexploiting the titular character’s poverty-laden life), the rising tension gives the audiences such an emotional mangle. The narrative, however depressing and frustrating, is a thought-provoking discourse about internet’s trending mentality—who, at worst, can be a public lynching to innocent victim. It probes a reflective thought for us, internet-dwellers, to how chaotic internet environment can be without internet education.