The opening shot of Juana C. The Movie finds Juana (Mae Paner) falling down a very tall building, which is apropos for a movie that starts out with such great promise but gradually spirals down with a convoluted plot and a disturbing need to spell out – in bold, capital letters – its message to the audience that it eventually ends up with its face flat on the pavement.
Screenwriter Rody Vera takes the popular social media character Juana Change, popularized by Paner, and gives her a background. We first see her as a simple-minded high school senior in a small village whose ecology is slowly being poisoned by a mining company operating in the area. The sight of a 40ish Paner as a teenager (and of the actors playing her parents who are clearly younger than her) is one of the film’s gags that signal to the audience that this is a movie that you can’t take that seriously. And it works for the first act of the film. We follow Juana as she enrols in Arneo University as a government scholar and befriends a young socialite (Annicka Dolonius) and her group of friends. She then meets Bayani (John James Uy), an attractive young man who takes a liking to her. We eventually witness Juana’s corruption as she becomes exposed to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, accruing huge debts and paying for them with sexual services, with Bayani acting as her pimp.
It is around this point that the filmmakers get too enamored with their own self-aware conceit and lose the audience in the process. We are introduced to a whole array of kooky characters who are mostly caricatures of government and church officials. Juana meets Bayani’s mother, Peaches Tanquintera (Angelina Kanapi), the country’s top prostitute who makes her a protégé and teaches her the tricks of the trade. Peaches is privy to shady deals of the country’s elite (including a military general, a senator, a business tycoon, a bishop, etc.), most of whom are bumbling idiots involved in the mining operations in Juana’s village. When Juana finds this out, she asks Hiro (Jelson Bay), a student activist who admires her, to help her come up with a solution. It all ends in a protracted screeching mayhem.
Thanks to the film’s lecturing device that insult the audience’s capacity to think for themselves (many scenes have Juana break the fourth wall and address the audience directly), the film’s message is made pretty clear: the Philippines is a fucked-up country whose elite are out to take advantage of the poor, and if we don’t get our act together, nothing will change. But by crafting a consciously slapdash movie, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “Don’t take the movie seriously; take the message seriously.” And that’s basically the movie’s downfall: it’s a message movie whose message is something that everyone knows in the first place. Go watch Juana Change videos on YouTube instead: they have none of the discombobulating shenanigans of the movie.