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Colma: The Musical

Independent films have the odds stacked against them before they ever even get off the ground. Overcoming the odds is necessary before they ever begin to see the light of day, so limiting any possible detracting factors is common practice for aspiring indie filmmakers.

Adding the element of a musical to an independent effort is like adding one more adversity in a long line of things to overcome on its way to success, fame, and fortune. Yet part of the charm behind Richard Wong and H.P. Mendoza’s Colma: The Musical stems from the simple fact that it eschews the safety of commonality, and wears its musical stripes like a badge of honor.

Dipping into the pool of teenage coming-of-age drama is nothing new, but Colma brings a fresh approach to tackling common tropes, and intersperses them with music that feels unique and catchy.

The film centers on three teens desperately seeking to find direction after graduating from high school in Colma – a city best known as the place where San Franciscans are buried when they die. In a town where the living population is eclipsed by the number of deceased residents, it’s easy to see why straight-edged thespian Billy (Jake Moreno), and his best-friend Rodel (songwriter, screenwriter, and lyricist, H.P. Mendoza) anticipate that things will, hopefully, get better.

We follow Billy on his quest to land a job at a local retailer. His interview with the store’s manager is at once awkward and demeaning – poor Billy is presented with the first of many choices in a long line of Colma-induced conformity. His supportive parents rejoice when they hear that he’s been hired, but Billy is unsatisfied and seeks the comfort of Rodel’s company.

Their kindred feeling of disenfranchised aimlessness is not shared by Maribel (L.A. Renigen) who is far more content “acting the part” and morphing into the routines of other, older Colma-ites. In celebration of Billy’s newfound success, the trio sneaks into a frat-party – pretending to be of legal drinking age. Like the graveyards of Colma, Billy and Rodel view the partygoers as bleak harbingers of a future lying in wait for them. At Maribel’s request they begrudgingly act the part, but the thought of living it later is too much for them to accept on a more permanent basis.

There is a deeper layer at play in Colma: The Musical that resonates within its music. It’s not enough to merely discuss these characters' feelings of being trapped in dismal situations; their circumstances are enhanced by their surroundings. The argument here is that, sure, teens across the country are subjected to similar situations all the time, but they become amplified by the mere nature of Colma itself – a city where one’s own mortality is reflected in countless tombstones and cemeteries throughout town.

All of this is set to the beat of H.P. Mendoza’s pop-inspired soundtrack, including songs as earnest and honest as the conflicts contained within the film itself. One common issue I’ve had with many musicals is the feeling of “resolution through song,” yet Mendoza has carefully crafted numbers that expand the conflicts among characters in a surprisingly self-aware fashion.

Each tune culls inspiration from 80’s pop mainstays (I like to imagine that somewhere in Brooklyn the Johns of They Might Be Giants are contemplating a musical of their own after seeing Colma), and blends it with equal parts nostalgia and originality.

Ultimately, this miniDV shot DIY indie pulls off a simple yet deeply entertaining yarn of teenage aspirations fighting to get a leg up over personal conflict and turmoil creatively portrayed through deft use of split-screen and well-crafted character development. The conflicts feel legitimate, and the favoring of realism over fantasy is a refreshing approach that sets Colma: The Musical apart from many other entries into the musical genre.

Colma: The Musical is currently playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.


Mario Anima

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