The American dream in ‘Toto’
IT is easy to dismiss the story of Toto as one that’s about colonial mentality, a life taken over by the American dream brought to the point of obsession, the discontent that eats up the soul of the Filipino until he becomes unidentifiable, indistinct, save for his delusions about the land of milk and honey.
It is in many-a-narrative about the Filipino’s precondition to believe in greener pastures. And one might say that it is a story that we’ve seen before, one that remains a fairy tale in the back of our heads, even as we know the truths about the migration of Filipinos as bodies of labor.
And yet the moment one sees Toto dancing in his briefs, walking out into the small community he lives in, high-fiving his way out of the iskinita, flashing his charming smile on every lady on the street, and throwing Tom Cruise lines every chance he gets, you can’t help but cheer him on.
As his story unravels you realize that this is not just about a man with an American dreams. At the heart of it is our neo-colonial condition, one that isn’t just simply about the delusions we have of America, because it is in fact premised on the conditions of our distress within nation.
Stuff for delirium
Anyone who knows of the real state of the nation would understand Toto’s story. There is no reason to think this is merely about the fairytale of what America can offer, nor is this about judging nation for its foibles.
Instead it is about creating a story that reveals how nation just isn’t enough. What works about Toto the film (written by John Paul Su and Donald Martin, directed by John Paul Su) is its insistence on discussing this story of the American dream without hardselling the idea of poverty and need, and certainly without delivering a sob story. Sure there is the context of Tacloban Leyte as hometown that Toto (Sid Lucero) and his friend (Thou Reyes) fled but continue to care for. There is also the backstory of a sick mother (Bibeth Orteza).
But these are balanced out by a house being rebuilt, and a mother whose strength is in her having survived the storm and cancer, and whose concern is that her son maintains a dream of America handed down from his dead father (Bembol Roco), a ghost that lives on.
Toto though is portrayed as a happy guy, not because he is naïve about his dreams, but because it has simplified his life. He treats nation not as a trap, but as a pit stop, the destination being America. There are no relationships worth committing to, and every loan and every risk is worth taking. Dangers are dismissed as part of the trip, literal and figurative. Another part of this trip is the constant appearance of the phantasm of a father’s failures.
This film has Lucero to thank, who is finally in a role that reveals what it is he can actually do, other than be the brooding and dark stereotype he has be trapped in (yes, I’m looking at you Norte). In Lucero’s hands, Toto is the charming every man, the good looking, English-spokening hotel roomboy that we come across all the time, with believable daring because of the simplicity of the dream of America.
He asks American hotel guests: will you marry me? It’s the easiest way to get out of here.
The neo-colonial desperation
The choices Toto makes are no surprise: it is not because he is naïve or stupid, it’s because he is desperate. The more he gets lost in this dream, the more open he becomes to his utter destruction.
One of the successes of this film is that it captures this very specific working class whose desperation is not premised on the sad dark story of the impoverished Pinoy. Instead it sustains Toto’s story as a hard worker, who can share a home with his best friend, sell DVDs on the side, send money to the province for his sick mother. He is not one of the downtrodden; his desperation is borne of his ability to sustain a dream.
The rationale for this desperation is explained in the simplest terms by Toto to American hotel guest, turned friend, David (Blake Boyd): one can work one’s ass off in the Philippines, and remain in the same spot forever. America promises otherwise.
Of course it is also America and our relationship with it as nation that has created this state of affairs, where workers die as workers, and dream-fulfillment is only for the rich.
Where America is the land that we are made to aspire for, as we remain the little brown brothers who know less, are less, can only be so much less.
Toto lives this truth. The state of the nation is the rationale for his desperation. He does not believe in fairy tales.
Beyond the dreaming
The success of Toto the movie is bound to a decision to speak of the fairy tale of America as a form of delirium, the reality of nation as the premise of dreaming. This, without creating a story that seeks only to tug at heartstrings—if not get some international film festivals excited about some good ol’ poverty and tragedy porn.
Instead what this film highlights is the tragicomedy of our desperation as nation, the distress of neo-colonial anxiety, the dangers and disasters of dreaming. Instead of falling into the trap of superficiality, it uses comedy to reveal the tragedy of these characters that usually get lost somewhere between our middle-class rom-coms and our poverty porn.
Here, Toto is the every Pinoy, a Juan dela Cruz version 2.0, who is everything we say when we speak of the greatest things about being us: he is hardworking and maabilidad, he is resilient and matiyaga, he can smile and through everything, even laugh in the face of danger.
And when faced with dream-fulfillment, he can only look upon the future with dread and disquiet. He will be willing to live with both forever, because the American dream might not be fairy tale, but certainly it cannot be the same as the nightmares of nation.