Glenn Barit makes a visually ambitious anthology about the life of high schoolers in a provincial Filipino town in Cleaners. Revolving around a group of classmates in a Catholic high school, the narrative branches out into 4 chapters—each centers around different teen angsts—with a prologue and an epilogue that converge the stories together. The nostalgic atmosphere thickens as the narrative begins observing relatable high school moments—from extracurricular ambition, innocent romance, to identity crisis—acted by non-actor performers adding unforeseeable authenticity to the already grounded stories.
The whole stories revolve in one academic year during the main characters’ senior year. Stephanie (Ianna Taguinod), a germaphobia, had an embarrassing performance while chasing a place in the school’s dance troupe. Conservative class captain, Angeli (Gianne Rivera), made an unlikely alliance with the sentimental rebels, Emo Boys (Leomar Baloran, Julian Narag, Carlo Mejia). Francis (Allan Gannaban) is obsessed to prove to the troubled Britney (Charisse Mabonnag) that he’s worthy as a prom date. Meanwhile, son of influential persons in town, Junjun (Andrei Marquez) is running for Youth Council president in his first political step. From those experiences, the teenagers somehow find out that “life” is only one step away and the cunning, highly political, and life-changing moment might happen with a single. split-second decision. Cleaners is at the doorstep in portraying those moments candidly.
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What stands out more than anything else in Cleaners is its visual. The movie is presented in monochromatic, photocopy-texture visuals with the main characters highlighted with neon-colors from the highlighter. The frame-rate is cut short making it like a stop-motion movie; while, obviously it is made with stop-motion technique after the director finished the final cut, printed each screen, photocopied and highlighted each print, and rearranged them into the utmost final cut. There seems to be much fuss in the production (knowing that this is an independent feature), but, in the end, the visuals feels rather gimmicky than compelling. While the photocopy texture somehow tells an implicit subtext about uniformity and conservatism (one of the movie’s indirect theme—just look at how every student wears exactly the same uniform set from top to bottom), the implied message never surfaced but in forms of symbolisms. The story itself, however uneven between each chapter, is powerful enough to deliver the message while the visuals sometimes distract.
The decision to cast non-professional actor is, however, Cleaners‘ finest experiment. Those non-actor teenagers channel the right amount of awkwardness and raw (sometimes unreal) emotion that becomes the soul of the story. In the midst of high school years, we sometimes feel that life is a mere acting. We decide on something and act on it until it feels real. That kind of energy is what the teens bring best to guide this anthology hits closer to home, even when most of the subtexts are local to the socio-cultural Philippines’ boundary.