The scent of nostalgia is thick in Fajar Nugros’ Balada Si Roy (2023) a.k.a. The Ballads of Roy. It’s an adaptation of Gol A Gong’s book series that has made quite a reputation through the late 80s until the 90s. Therefore, it’s only logical this film brings out the zeitgeist of that era like it’s only happened yesterday – for better or worse.
Not Another Teen Movie
Balada Si Roy‘s popularity wasn’t unprecedented. Calling it a byproduct of an earlier popular work might be an understatement. Although, it does have a familiar ring to it. The titular character has since become a teen icon (high on the elite ranks of Lupus, Boy – from Catatan Si Boy, and Dilan – a late addition to this group from Dilan 1990 & 1991). While still high on the 80s machismo, Roy’s self-discovery accentuates how life was in a coastal suburb in the 80s – a reflection of the writer’s experience growing up in Serang, a seaside town in northwest of Java.
In the story, Roy (Abidzar Al-Ghifari) and his mother (Lulu Tobing) move to Serang a few years after his father’s passing. Like some other new-kid-in-town tropes, he immediately establishes his happy-go-lucky antics everywhere he goes. He would wear jeans to school, take his fur-buddy along and sip some alcoholic drinks during breaks.
His rebellious persona leads him to some loyal, new friends (Jourdy Pranata and Omara Esteghlal). The same antics will attract a few love interests (Febby Rastanty among others). However, it also leads him to his arch-nemesis (portrayed brilliantly by Bio One), too. He seems to be destined to make a lasting impression in this new town. This is the place that makes him and breaks him. It grants him a lot of new experiences and takes away just as much.
The setting gives Roy a wilder and weirder adventure that separate him from his literary compatriots. Serang, albeit a small town, adds some important layers to Roy’s coming-of-age voyage. This is the land of champions – a place where history and mysticism find ways to thrive in the present. For those reasons, this town takes Roy from one wild-ride to another. For a moment, it looks like that zero-to-hero tale where the new kid incites a fight back against the school bullies. The next things you’ll see are some school brawls, martial arts duels, and road races. Before long, Balada Si Roy will also unleash the demons into the narrative – figuratively and literally. That’s where this film starts to crack.
A Case of Over-Adaptation
Salman Aristo (veteran scriptwriter and director – Satu Hari Nanti) compresses several volumes of Gong’s book a 109-minute film. While that gives a helicopter view of Roy’s development as a teenager and an action-junkie, that makes Balada Si Roy feels disjointed and episodic. There’s just too much going on during the whole film.
The umbrella theme is a self-discovery journey – in which Roy struggles to find a place he calls “home.” However, some of the subplots seem deliberately force the protagonist to take the forked road only to start again in the place where he left off. It might seem realistic – just like life would sometimes do to us. Yet, this creates a narrative mess in this film. Once the protagonist solves a subplot, the film introduces a new one almost immediately – giving Roy no time to grow subtly as a character.
The introduction of, at least, three love interests within an already compact story proves to be more of a distraction than a catalyst. Roy’s love story with Ani (Febby Rastanty) is more than sufficient to give the protagonist enough motivation to grow. It’s the root of his feud with Dullah (One), the leader of Borsalino – the school bullies. This romance also poses a threat to Roy’s activism – a trait he inherits from his late father. Yet, here’s where the male ego takes of him (and his story apparently).
This ballad has always been about male ego – the urge to become an ideal teenage boy in the era. Roy fits the bill right from the start as if he’s the manifestation of teen magazine’s cover story in person. It’s just surprising that the same ego is manifested to the writing of his story. The machismo was as real in the 80s as it is now; but, that leaves nothing to reflect on for modern values. This makes Balada Si Roy feels like a mere reminiscing of the bygone era (although Nugros cleverly inserts his signature grass-root commentary to the story).
However, there’s no masquerading that Balada Si Roy (2023) would have worked better if it wasn’t a feature film. Its episodic writing fits somewhere else – with more time and exploration to work with. Still, it’s an eclectic tale of self-discovery & male ego with enticing 80s aesthetics plus teen-lit machismo. Yet, this is a journey that feels too disjointed to get invested to.