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'Boy From Nowhere' Is A Compelling Marriage of Fiction and Reality

Buffalo 8

A boy helps the older men till the land, then looks intently on the horizon as a group of armed rebels approach them. One of the armed men sizes the boy up and asks, “Where are you from?” In SJ Finlay’s Boy From Nowhere, this question serves as the main thesis of the entire film: a young man’s pursuit, not only of his identity, but also of his own belonging in a harsh world.

Boy From Nowhere introduces us to 14-year-old Gary (Gary Jumawan), a boy from the Badjao tribe, a nomadic group known as “sea gypsies” due to their stilt houses and coastal settlements. We follow Gary as he witnesses his fishing village burned down in a suspicious attack, losing his father in the process. Intent on finding his remaining family in a far off valley, Gary takes on the journey and meets several characters along the way. The boy’s innocence and malleability soon become the audience’s bane, as Gary gets entangled with the wrong crowd and almost loses his own life. Nonetheless, his will to survive greatly shapes his world view, with a hope for the better.

With the film’s assured direction complementing a deeply layered story, one can be forgiven for assuming that Finlay has several movies under his belt when, in fact, this is his impressive feature debut. His choice of handheld camerawork gives the film a gritty sense of verisimilitude that, when coupled with the film’s fragmented narrative, makes it feel almost like a documentary. And it makes sense, especially when the filmmakers maintain that Boy From Nowhere is based on true events.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Hiring a Badjao to star in a film about the search for identity amidst displacement is a tall order that requires research. For one, the Philippine government considers the tribe to be the most marginalized ethnic group and among the poorest tribes in the country. These distinctions, in turn, have created a negative stereotype among the land dwellers that the tribe has since had difficulty shaking off. This is important, because Jumawan’s casting creates an interesting parallel between the character’s personal journey and the displacement that the tribe continues to experience in the Philippines to this day. And while it’s noteworthy that Finlay did his homework for the film, Gary’s identity as a Badjao in the eyes of other people needed more exposition to better flesh out the parallel the movie tries to convey.

Apart from that, striving for realism also has its fair share of drawbacks. Chiefly among these involves casting non-actors. An inherent gamble, but one that works in large part due to the everyman quality of the film’s protagonist. And while Jumawan’s line delivery (as well as those of the rest of the cast) leaves room for improvement, he nails it especially in scenes when no words are spoken. His character is someone who, at a young age, has already experienced unspeakable hardships most of us couldn't even begin to fathom; and with his eyes alone, we see someone’s boyhood filled with tragedy that’s more than enough for one lifetime. Even the most seasoned of actors can struggle with the task of conveying such realism, and for what it's worth, it's Finlay’s ace in the hole.

To drive home the film’s point, Finlay makes use of title cards that contextualise the world his protagonist lives in. The Philippine island of Mindanao, known for its resources, is also rife with conflict. Rebel groups and government troops clash on the daily, and people caught in the cross-hairs either fall victim or simply join the fray. The film also emphasises that in order to protect their tribal lands, beliefs, and identities, some groups resort to using child soldiers to fight for their cause. This exposition is key, since it re-frames Gary’s predicament as a convenience for others, who take advantage of the boy’s naivete while giving him a sense of belonging he longs for.

The film ends almost exactly as it began, albeit this time with a clearer picture for the audience. Gary, asked by one of the rebels to take sides, chooses the path for himself with conviction. More than knowing where he’s from, he’s finally known who he is.

Boy From Nowhere premieres on Prime Video February 17 in the US and UK.


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