THE LAST movie about running was Mangarap Ka in 1995, where Mark Anthony Fernandez shoehorned an athletic career in between a relationship with Claudine Barretto and teaching the audience a moral lesson.
Running remains intense 16 years later but Thelma, which hits theaters September 7, handles it with a lot more subtlety.
No blatantly-inspirational anthems were shown to cheer on Thelma (Maja Salvador), a runner from Laoag City in Manila on an athletic scholarship, as she tries to balance training, studying, and worrying about her family back home. If anything, the audience almost expects Thelma to lose. Saddled with guilt over a car accident that crippled her sister Hannah (Eliza Pineda) and worried about her sick mother, Floring (Tetchie Agbayani), nobody in the theater would have blamed her for packing her bags and heading home.
In one of the movie’s most honest scenes, Thelma considers quitting to take care of her sickly mother. She asks her athlete boyfriend Sammy (Jason Abalos) for advice, but he has nothing to offer. Sammy, the son of a carpenter and a housewife, is himself considering giving up his scholarship to work as a seaman. He wasn’t even supposed to go to college, he says, since his father wanted him to work right after high school. Little more than a teenager himself, any pep talk from him would have been preachy, sappy, and fake.
Where Mark Anthony had Claudine to lean on, Thelma essentially has nobody. She gets to talk to her family whenever she sends her allowance home, but they are hundreds of kilometers away and can only talk for a few minutes. Her relationship with Sammy meanwhile is a just a sidebar.
Given how she has to train every day while keeping her grades up, that is all it deserves to be.
But Thelma is more than just the story of a gifted athlete trying to make it to the Philippine team. A fast runner, Thelma did not want to be on the team at all, preferring to run from the police with stolen empanadas in hand. She only started running to earn money for an operation that might make Hannah walk again after she got run over on the highway. Thelma blames herself for not crossing the highway with her sister like they usually do and joins a local marathon for the prize money.
She buys Hannah a wheelchair with the prize money and is discovered by the local high school track and field coach. Her mother tells her that she was once on the team too but had to quit to raise Thelma. Floring tells her to grab the opportunity and even offers to train her for the team tryouts. She qualifies and wins the district and regional meets, earning her the nickname Northern Wind and an offer to train in Manila with Elma Muros.
This movie shines in the details, the little things that show director Paul Soriano’s keen eye for setting a scene.
In one scene, Hannah wakes up in the middle of the night and has to be carried to the toilet. The long pause before Thelma gets up shows how tired she is from training. Her fatigue is never shown again in the film, she does not even get cramps, but that scene was enough.
When the high school coach asks Thelma’s mother to let her join the team, Agbayani’s eyes light up as he tells her her daughter could win the Palarong Pambansa with training. She acts non-committal and says she has to ask her husband (John Arcilla) but her eyes tell us she will not stop badgering him until he says yes.
When Hannah struggles with her crippled leg, we cringe for her. In one scene, she asks Thelma if she will ever walk again and when Thelma fails to reassure her, she pretends to be tired and then cries herself
to sleep. She resents her disability and does not want her sister to see her even more helpless.
The film also got another thing right: running is ugly. When you run all out, the strain makes you grimace. It is hardly flattering. Although Maja Salvador can never be considered ugly, she can hardly be called pretty as she portrays a runner trying to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run.
The only sore point in the film is the foreshadowing of Hannah’s fateful road accident. There were too many clues, too many hints that she will soon be wheelchair-bound, that when she is finally run over, the audience gasps in relief, not shock.
But that is just a minor bump on the road and does not detract from the well-told tale. The audience can, like Thelma, easily shake it off and keep going.
Actually a movie review for Sun.Star
Hey, students! Although it’s cool that you’re using this article as a basis for your film reviews for school, it would be a lot cooler if you see the movie too, so you can make your own conclusions and support local cinema while doing it. 🙂