Ma’ Rosa offers the same old tale of the poor Filipino, but its well-executed script, cinematography, and award winning performance by Jaclyn Jose delivers an affecting story that will leave you achingly frustrated along with its characters who are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and corruption.

Ma’Rosa runs a small convenient store that also sells meth. One day their house gets raided by the police who only want a payout. Desperate to avoid jail, the kids are forced to do whatever they can to collect the money in exchange for their parent’s freedom.

Brilliante Mendoza has become a regular feature in Cannes Film Festival, a feat that would be left unknown to the Philippine masses who are looking forward to the AlDub movie entitled “Imagine You and Me”*. Nonetheless, he makes films that depict their plight that some critics call misery porn.

Ma’ Rosa is another take on the survival of the underprivileged against a broken system. In verite style that marks Mendoza’s works, handheld cameras shoot a day in the life of its titular character. The grubby aesthetics fits the story very well – a mother makes ends meet by operating a small convenient store that doubles as a secret meth shop.

The script depicts the deeply rooted problems of Filipino society through a single incident – Rosa and her husband is caught by the police who want to know who their source is, but only to get a payout. The narrative turns into a black comedy as the predicament is presented as a normal everyday occurrence. In one scene, an errand boy buys chicken and beer with the first score.

The movie acknowledges that this extortion scheme is not as simple as it looks. Details tell the audience that corruption is spread from top to bottom, the only difference is connections. It combines with crime and poverty to create a vicious cycle where the only means of escape is by stepping over somebody else. In better days you are an accomplice, at the worst times you are the victim. Rosa and her family end up having the responsibility of settling the remaining balance of the payout.

Andi Eigenmann is not convincing as a poor teen (that conyo accent slips now and then) but the rest of the casting is on point. Mark Anthony Fernandez and Baron Geisler were perfect for their role given their history behind the camera. Julio Diaz nailed the portrayal of a drug addict. The highlight of the movie is Jaclyn Jose, who gives us the emotional punch that the movie sorely needed.

Her understated yet nuanced performance earned her the best actress award in the Cannes Film Festival that she deserves, but the movie isn’t exactly in the same caliber.

Ma’ Rosa doesn’t tell us anything new about the issues festering in the Filipino society. The international audience would be mesmerized by this story, but it’s the same old tale for a Filipino.

With a plot-driven script, the movie missed the opportunity to explore the impact of the situation to the family dynamic. What do the kids feel about sacrificing their pride and dignity to get their parents, who are criminals, out of jail? As a result, the kids become passive participants in the whole ordeal and the movie betrays its title by focusing on their efforts.

There is no sense of urgency as they do whatever is necessary to collect the due amount. The stakes aren’t raised and the only thing we see is a poor couple stuck in a cramped office.

Without a compelling story and characterization, Ma’ Rosa failed to become an introspective drama. However, it still excels as a naturalistic eye-opener about the small yet frustrating truths of being poor.

The narrative is littered with details that reflect Filipino society such as a business model that revolves around incremental returns, the usisero (rubbernecking is the closest translation I can get) tendency, and that one relative who gives a shouting sermon but lends money anyway.

It expertly builds up desperation and shows us how the poor persist, one laborious step at a time. You want Rosa and her kids to succeed, but you also realize that even if they do, it’s a temporary reprieve.

In the end, Ma’ Rosa already tells us what we already know but that doesn’t diminish its affecting message. The crab mentality is not just a mindset, it is also a product of a cruel way of life – the very people who try to escape from the bottom end up creating their own inescapable trap.

My Rating: 6.5/10

*which to me is a bit funny because there’s a lesbian film called “Imagine Me and You”, especially when you consider that the Philippines is a religious country.