A REVIEW OF THE FILM THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS (2005)
The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is a Filipino comedy-drama directed by Aureaus Solito and starring Nathan Lopez.
A Wow of a Boy
by Sam Hall, 6 June 2022
Boys may be celebrated as gay protagonists on one condition: any man they fall in love with must remain as inert as a tall drink of argon, a colourless, tasteless placeholder for the future gay-marriage the young fella doesn't yet know he craves. Only then can a cinema warm like a Dutch oven with much wholesome sighing over puppy love and the wonder of its own everlasting tolerance. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros manages, technically, to stay the correct side of this law while also presenting some bold challenges to Western notions of sex and gender.
Maxi is a twelve-year-old boy living in a poor district of Manila with his father and two older brothers. We're introduced to the showily effeminate Maxi via a close-up where he smiles happily, confidently and coquettishly direct to camera. She's more than ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille. The art of transgender always highlights the performative nature of our social roles and Maxi already has an advanced talent for it.
While Maxi's star-crossed romance with rookie cop Victor Perez, an enemy to the Oliveros family, is appropriately gripping, it's the boy's everyday existence in his community that is most revelatory and entertaining. There seems a strong suggestion Maxi has chosen a transgender persona partly due to the earlier death of his mother. The tradition of bakla, male cross-dressing behaviour, has strong roots in the Philippines, and remains an option for boys so inclined. But the role developed in small communities where often just one boy would be elected to the spiritually important role. Maxi's taking on this traditional effeminacy is playing an important role within the remaining all-male family, keeping alive a spiritual connection to the deceased matriarch. There is a small household shrine in her honour, and Maxi keeps the blossoms from his hair by her framed photograph.
Maxi delights in and excels at playing mother to the older males, cooking, cleaning, sewing. He cops some teasing from his brother Bogs, who thinks jokes about Maxi's need for sanitary napkins can never stale, but it clearly comes from a place of genuine affection. Later on, it's Bogs who tries most to help Maxi with his thwarted love for Victor -- not least by taking it seriously. His advice to the heartbroken boy that there are plenty of other men out there is possibly not the sort of advice such a twelve-year-old boy would receive in a caring, tolerant, Western community.
But it's Maxi's relationship with his dad, Paco, that seems of greatest importance. It emerges that Paco had been working in a factory; he was paid so little he couldn't afford the medical care that might have saved his wife. So he's now the boss of a petty crime gang and the family is much better off financially. Paco is very close to his girlishly affectionate youngest son, often telling everyone what a comfort and support he is. The boy's role in maintaining the bread-winner's ego in the dark days after his wife's death was probably crucial to the family's survival.
Maxi's family's acceptance of him is mirrored by the wider community, and it's fascinating to watch this through Western eyes. Western "tolerance" looks a meretricious, interfering busybody beside a tradition still not overly influenced by Judeo-Christian sex phobia. At a time in the West when transgenderism has skyrocketed to public prominence, has become the progressive Left's hyperventilating cause de jour, what we see in Blossoming seems as foreign as it would have been in the bad old intolerant fifties. Our biggest mistake in the West is to see sexual matters rooted in politics rather than nature and art. Puberty blockers belong to the former, certainly not the latter, as they shut down the transgressive lines of communication and inspiration. All the intuitive artistry Maxi brings to his own life, and the community's, would be shredded by the tone-deaf screeching for state-patrolled genderless pronouns.
Maxi's meeting with his first true love is a case in point. During a neighbourhood kids' drag show, Maxi glams up for the song "Mr. Wow" where he sings:
I want a man
With big strong arms
To protect me
He'll never leave
He's there when I need him
Not five minutes after he leaves the stage, this bit of camp frivolity turns profound Shamanic invocation and Mr. Wow appears. It's the new sheriff in town, the hunky young rookie Victor Perez, who saves Maxi from being raped by a couple of lecherous thugs in an alley. Unfortunately a white horse is out of the question in a neo-realist film, so Victor carries the shaken boy home on his back, whistling a tune which seems an echoing refrain from Maxi's recent invocatory drag performance. An uncanny mixing of dreams here, and this melancholic tune of Victor's goes on to be a significantly recurring theme. Whistling, Freud tells us, may be the wayfarers way of disavowing his anxiety, but he sees no more clearly for doing so. Maxi's dreamboat turns out to be a good man given to some blinkered blunders with fairly devastating consequences. Victor might have done better to take more seriously the agitating source of his compulsive whistling in the dark.
Maxi's subsequent pursuit of Victor shows he hasn't been wasting his time watching romantic movies -- he's a winning, assured seductress. Victor has only just arrived in town, he's single and alone, and very much enjoys Maxi's company. But the policeman's attempt to play dumb about Maxi's motives angers the boy, and fair enough, too. From the boy's near rape to Maxi's family's attitudes to the good-natured ribbing by Victor's work colleagues, it's clearly taken for granted here that a boy like Maxi is naturally an object of male desire. Victor, who seems to have come from a more Christian-dominated background, affects a greater ambivalence. His eventual rejection of Maxi, telling him to find someone his own age, strikes a discordant note in this film.
It is Victor's principles, too often open to dubious moments of pragmatism, which are the major source of conflict in this film. His refusal to take bribes or look the other way bring him into increasingly bitter conflict with the Oliveros clan and their criminal enterprises. It's an admirable commitment to honesty and law by a rookie cop, and Maxi, already in love, can't help but be influenced by these ideals. He starts to questions his family's criminal activities, causing new fault lines to appear. He even starts to rethink his decision to leave school in order to take care of his family. It leads to an inevitable showdown where his father insists Maxi decide where his loyalties lie.
Even at such fractious family moments, the Oliveros family has some admirable qualities lost to the West's modern suburban equivalent. The main difference concerns the nature of the boundary between the nuclear family and greater society. The close and rudimentary living conditions in a poor Filipino neighbourhood don't allow for the isolation, the vacuum-sealed borders, that too often go up in affluent Western suburbia. The love, protection and guidance that the Oliveros family extend to young Maxi, while simultaneously acknowledging his burgeoning autonomy, his right and need to start forging his own life-path -- it's a model worth some serious study by today's well-heeled Western brigades of helicoptering safety utopians.
As Victor's feud with the Oliveros clan works its way through to its bloody climax, the relationship between he and Maxi becomes more and more complex. In the beginning, Maxi takes great care with his feminine appearance, deploying a full armoury of makeup, fashion and jewellery. Interestingly, this changes after the scene where Maxi becomes angry at Victor for refusing to take him seriously as a potential romantic interest. The boy goes home, spends some thoughtful time in front of the mirror, and from the next day dials down the femininity quite noticeably. Make-up, bracelets, hair accessories, all gone. Whether this is another speculative move in the game of love or a wilful bit of self-expression or a random adolescent mood swing is hard to say.
Perhaps, as a gender-crossing artist, Maxi is channelling the Philippines' kaleidoscopic homosexual history. While the bakla tradition is strong and ancient, a general tolerance of pederasty has also long flourished as neither Spanish or American rule saw fit to outlaw the activity. That Maxi wants a sexual relationship with Victor isn't in doubt. What that will mean for the boy's future sexual identity is far less certain. Fortunately, at twelve years of age, Maxi has plenty of time to luxuriate in the uncertainty.
It's in Maxi's more boyish mode that the pivotal kiss takes place. Victor has been beaten up by the Oliveros clan and Maxi tends his wounds and mounts an overnight vigil. As the injured man regains some strength next morning, he becomes affectionate and tells Maxi how pretty he's looking. This is the term he used when telling Maxi what sort of girl he liked. So it's it's intriguing that he uses it with Maxi having ditched his feminine costume, dressed now in plain olive green T-shirt and dark blue shorts. Does Victor prefer Maxi's more boyish persona? I think it would be fair to say the one person not qualified to give an answer is Victor himself. Pulling Maxi to him on the bed, he strokes the boy's hair and face -- but when Maxi moves in to plant a quick kiss on Victor's cheek, the man is stunned! What's all this, then! And sends the boy home. And that's it. Victor now breaks off the friendship entirely.
According to experts like Shakespeare, it is the moonish youth who is changeable, shallow and inconstant. In this relationship the charge seems more fairly levelled at Victor. He has not been straight with the boy from the start. His initial friendship seems built on a desire to help the boy look to his future. He encourages Maxi to think of returning to school, plan for an honest career; he shows a manly desire to teach boy basic skills like how to whistle. But then he uses this friendship, with unfair force, to try and gain the information to put Maxi's brother in jail. Victor is constantly stressing the need for a man to live an honest, law-abiding life. It puts incredible pressure on Maxi, torn between loyalty to his family and his love for Victor and the rather new, exciting ideals he represents.
It all comes to a tragic end when these ideals of Victor's are shown to be decidedly, shabbily contingent. A new corrupt police chief takes Victor on as a protégé and Victor is soon a willing accessory to Maxi's dad's murder. With Maxi watching on, of course.
Victor afterward seeks Maxi out to apologise and to offer an excuse that surely rings hollow even in his own ears. All the dreamy Mr Wow romance is in the dust. Maxi has nothing to say to Victor but Victor shows surprising tenacity in now trying to win back the boy's friendship. He was at his honourable best with Maxi, and having destroyed that obviously cuts deep. A beautifully enigmatic scene takes place where Victor goes to the boy's home after dark, whistling up to his bedroom window, a rather forlorn version of the classic serenading lover. Maxi, at the windowsill, but without making visual contact, returns with his own melancholic whistling, an ability gained directly from Victor. But can either see any clearer?
We move from there to the famous last scene, lifted straight from The Third Man. Anna, in The Third Man, stays true to her ideal of love by walking with implacable coldness straight past the waiting Holly Martins. So Maxi, in walking straight past a similarly waiting Victor, is also preferring to stay true to his ideal love, his original Mr. Wow. But he does so while on the first day of his returning to school, fully divested of his transgender persona, dressed in a boy's uniform and striding with straight-hipped quiet self-confidence. It seems both the communal and personal motives for his bakla role are no longer pressing. Blossomings come in many shapes and colours, and Maxi's brief relationship with Victor certainly played an important part in his latest incarnation.
There was one subtle and very important difference between the two final scenes. Anna's resolute walk past Martins was as final as an Egyptian sphinx. Maxi's walk past his snubbed beau, however, contains a momentary hesitation, as is fitting for a boy in early adolescence -- not a time to be permanently shutting down potential avenues of experience. He has reached his current impressively sure-footed state via a talented sensitivity and openness toward the mighty forces of sex and gender. So if our clay-footed Mr Wow can take a hint, learn that even a simple hunky hero needs to get his act together, he might not end up on the cutting room floor.