MIFF 2024 review: Firefly (Zig Dulay)

“Call it cheesy, hopeful, or a small film with a big heart, but there’s no mistaking the genuine affection its audience will feel once the credits roll.”

The newly-formed Manila International Film Festival brings more Philippine cinema to Hollywood, most notably entries from the festival of which it is the American extension, the Metro Manila Film Festival, which remains the biggest annual celebration of Filipino movies. In its inaugural year, the film that nabbed Best Picture was Zig Dulay’s Firefly, a genuine story of a boy trying to find the place his mother told him stories about before going to sleep.

Grief is not a particularly new theme to discuss in cinema, but in Firefly it is seen through the eyes of a young boy who lost his mother. Now orphaned, Tonton clings to the memory of his mother Elay by searching for that magical place she promised to take him to — an island of fireflies that grants you your wishes. For young Tonton, this might be his way to honour his mother and cope with the loss he has suffered, and nothing can or will stop him from finding that place. The journey itself is interesting because Tonton is accidentally joined by a group of strangers: a ragtag bunch of misfits all wanting to escape. They’ve all had their fair share of personal experiences trying to get out of a tough situation, and helping the kid on his journey is something that resonates with them.

Of course the story includes multiple instances of suspension of disbelief, but that is also what makes it more special. A kid who travels alone, guided by strangers he met on a bus who join him in seeking a place that they’re not even sure really exists, could make for a totally different film. Firefly sticks to its magical realism theme throughout though, which justifies its landing.

The film unfortunately gets bogged down by its use of a framing device, going back to the present-day protagonist as he sits down for an interview and gets questioned by a writer regarding the authenticity of his story. It disrupts the film’s build-up of momentum and feels like an easy way out to connect the separate parts of Tonton’s journey. The portrayal of the mother-son relationship is what makes the film work. In a film that requires you to believe the impossible, the grounded relationship between Elay and Tonton is the perfect setup to kickstart the story. Alessandra de Rossi’s effective performance as the mother makes the most of her very limited screentime and ensures her presence is felt until the end.

Firefly is a heartfelt nod to the bedtime stories we were told when we were young and how these shape us in our journeys moving forward. Call it cheesy, hopeful, or a small film with a big heart, but there’s no mistaking the genuine affection its audience will feel once the credits roll.