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REVIEW: 'Firefly' is a heartwarming coming-of-age story

By Mikhail Lecaros Published Dec 25, 2023 10:35 am Updated Dec 25, 2023 1:02 pm

When children’s author Antonio “Tonton” Alvaro (Dingdong Dantes, A Hard Day, Alyas Robin Hood) is slated to receive a prestigious award, a reporter (Max Collins, Rainbow’s Sunset) interviews him to learn the inspiration behind his writings. As Tonton shares the details of his past, he reveals an incredible story of family, friendship, and hope in the face of loss.

Making its bow at the 2023 Metro Manila Film Festival, Firefly is the latest release from director Zig Dulay (Bagahe, TV’s Maria Clara at Ibarra). The film stars Miguel Tanfelix, Ysabel Ortega, Epy Quizon, Cherry Pie Picache, and Alessandra De Rossi to tell a heartwarming coming-of-age story as seen through the eyes of Tonton, played in flashback by newcomer Euwenn Mikaell.

Mikaell is excellent as the young Tonton, leveraging childish exuberance against genuine acting chops to deliver real emotionality, without resorting to the sing-song delivery of yore. When we first meet Tonton, he’s living a simple life with his mother, Elay (De Rossi), who regales him with him stories of fairies, giants, and a mystical island of fireflies that grant wishes. When tragedy strikes, Tonton sets out on a quest to reach the storied island, and make a crucial wish. Along the way, he’s joined by an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom have their own reasons for helping him.

Tonton and his mother live a simple life, sharing stories of fairies, giants, and fireflies.

Tanfelix keeps things aloof as Billy, a young man who’s slow to trust, playing in direct contrast to the vivacious, outgoing nature of Ortega’s headstrong Erika. Quizon lends his veteran presence to the quartet as Louie, a man looking to make amends for the mistakes he’s made in life. As we spend more time with each character, and they learn more about Tonton, the universality of a child’s love for their mother will unite them in ways none of them could have predicted.

From the claustrophobic slums of Mega Manila to the sprawling fields, mountains, and oceans that lie beyond it, ace cinematographer Neil Daza’s shots pay tribute to the endless, idyllic wonders this country has to offer–if only we took the time to look. When Tonton and his companions take in one breathtaking vista after another, the contemplative vibe is palpable. Just as Suzume painted an idyllic image of the Japanese countryside, Firefly’s visuals play like the greatest road trip you never thought to take (but probably should).

Speaking with PhilSTAR L!fe following the media screening, Ortega revealed that the chance to shoot in multiple idyllic locations in the weeks following the pandemic was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Furthermore, she described the story as one whose honesty and emotionality she couldn’t help but be captivated by. It was a sentiment echoed by Tanfelix, who shared that he was a fan of coming-of-age stories, and an even bigger fan of Zig Dulay: “It’s more than a coming-of-age story—it’s a story about the love of a mother for her child, and that’s a big reason why I wanted to do this project.”

Following his mother's passing, Tonton is joined by an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom have their own reasons for helping him.

CGI is judiciously applied to bring elements of Elay’s stories to life, complementing the proceedings with a layer of whimsy that enhances—rather than detracts from—the narrative. The visual wizardry is at its most effective when subtly interjecting images and elements from Elay’s stories into the real world. Seeing things through Tonton’s eyes, we realize just how strong his foundation is, and believe that a child could influence three adults to join him. 

When asked about his thoughts on the film’s resonance, Dulay shared, “I’m always nervous when I see my movies with an audience. As a storyteller, the most important element is being able to connect with the viewer, because without that connection, it’s meaningless. If even one person is touched by the work, that’s a victory for the filmmaker.”

Having viewed the completed film, Dulay can definitely breathe a sigh of relief–Firefly is a sincere, emotional journey that tugs on the heartstrings in all the usual ways, while moving the viewer in ways one won’t necessarily expect. This is a film for the entire family to enjoy, and by the time Tonton and his friends reach the end of their quest, you’ll have witnessed something altogether greater (and rarer) than a baseline festival entry: an instant classic.

Firefly opens in Philippine cinemas on Dec. 25 along with nine other entries (A Mother and Son's Story, When I Met You in Tokyo, Mallari, Penduko, Rewind, Becky and Badette, GomBurZa, Broken Hearts Trip, and Kampon) as part of the Metro Manila Film Festival running until Jan. 7. Watch the trailer below.