It’s a delicate balancing act when trying to tell a story on visual media that both entertains and teaches a valuable lesson simultaneously. One needs to make sure the story is interesting enough without burying the intended moral; and the moral has to be presented in a manner that is organic with the narrative, not dropped on one’s head like a hammer. But I digress. Star Cinema’s late-midyear cinematic offering “Love You to the Stars and Back” does this careful balancing act, if not perfect, then competently. It’s got some relevant things to say about survivor’s guilt, suicidal thoughts and dealing with life-threatening cancer, while showcasing one of ABS-CBN’s myriad of teen love teams in Julia Barretto and Joshua Garcia, aka. “Joshlia.”
Julia stars as Mika, a college student with a quirky hobby and a heavy weight on her soul. She had been especially close to her mother (brief role by Carmina Villaroel), a woman who while wasting away from an illness has expressed great interest in aliens and a belief that she will be abducted by them eventually. After her death, Mika has become increasingly estranged from people, especially her dad (Ariel Rivera) who has remarried and whose second wife/Mika’s stepmom (Maricar Reyes) is now expecting a baby. Unable to move on from the loss of her ma, and believing that her memory will disappear from their family, Mika runs away on her car, with her destination being a spot where UFOs have been reported in the Philippines. The fact that said site is a mountain with steep rocky peak gives a morbid undercurrent to her driving desire to be “taken by aliens” like her mother once promised.
En route to Mt. Milagros, Mika runs into an initially unwanted travelling companion in Caloy (Joshua Garcia). Caloy was cycling by his lonesome to a town where his father, who left his mother (Cherrie Pie Picache) when he was a child, is said to be currently residing. He hitches a ride with Mika after her car runs over his foot, which gets a welt that takes quite long to heal. As she learns, Caloy has leukemia, explaining the many bruises on his body. Still, his rather chipper demeanor seems to clash with Mika’s brooding thoughts and single-minded purpose. As expected, romantic comedy ensues.
The main body of the film is a quaint and picturesque road trip across the Calabarzon Region while Caloy and Mika try to figure each other out. The fact that during their journey they end up “adopting” a chicken that escaped being turned into a “tinola” is a cheeky indicator of what their interaction is going to end up becoming. And the things they learn about one another also plumb some hidden depths within their respective selves. Caloy, while outwardly positive despite his cancer, also has a fragile facet whenever his absent father and his mother’s financial woes for his treatment get brought up. Mika on the other hand discovers that while she has a stronger bond with her departed mother, it may not be worth letting go of the family she still has. I will spoil that at some point in the movie, both of them appear to be on the summit of Mount Milagros, calling down the aliens with a wacky chant, but what happens next must be seen by you.
The daughter of veteran film stars Dennis Padilla and Marjorie Barretto, Julia Barretto has built up a veritable acting résumé (and award accolades) with ABS-CBN’s TV and movie studios for over a decade now. She has also been paired with a menagerie of leading men, but it’s only recently that she seems to have achieved remarkable onscreen chemistry with 2014 PBB Housemate Joshua Garcia, who has also begun making inroads with cinematic roles after some time on TV. Josh has been noted as channeling the charisma and character acting style of John Lloyd Cruz when he was that age, and his dynamics with Julia has already been proved in 2016’s “Vince and Kath and James” (albeit as part of a love triangle with Ronnie Alonte). “Love You to the Stars and Back” finally gets to show them build up as a couple with no alternative pairings.
The rest of the cast, despite reduced roles due to the story focus on Joshlia as Caloy and Mika, still definitely portray their roles well with true veteran skill. Carmina’s flashback role as the alien-obsessed mother of Mika is bittersweet, so is the portrayal of Ariel as the well-meaning but moved-on dad and Maricar as the not-wicked stepmother. Cherrie Pie is also a bright spot as the motherly concerned single mother to Caloy doesn’t disappoint either. The film itself boasts an appropriate soundtrack built around the Moonstar88 song “Torete” (covered by Moira Dela Torre) as the theme.
It’s indeed a balance to both entertain and teach something, especially for a matinee feature film intended mostly for general audiences. Star Cinema proves its dominant position as the premiere Philippine movie studio, helped along by the Joshlia pairing, with “Love You to the Stars and Back,” a quaint movie that covers the middle of the year (apart from the holiday film-fest crowd) quite nicely.