There is a special attentiveness, an almost preternatural solicitousness that accompanies the care of the titular child in Brillante Mendoza’s Foster Child. Even before the foster family can settle down to eat the first meal of the day, one of them must hurry out to buy diapers for the urine-drenched child. Instead of receiving stern discipline for wetting himself, this child is lavished with understanding and affection. During the course of long days in an overcrowded warren of suburban Manila, the foster child named John-John (Kier Segundo) receives devotional attention: he is fed, bathed, clothed with a kind of care that foster mother Thelma (Cherry Pie Picache) may not have given her own children.
It’s a premise fraught with the kind of emotional largesse that will appeal to this country of bleeding hearts, but the biggest virtue of this film is the restraint of Brillante Mendoza’s direction. Histrionics do not figure much in the director’s scheme of things. With a treatment that combines neorealist concerns and settings (Visconti’s Bellissima comes to mind) and both the thematic and cinematographic approaches of the Dardenne Brothers, Foster Child dwells tastefully on the dilemma inherent in foster care: what happens when a foster family becomes too attached to a foster child?
In Foster Child, Thelma and her family initially appear to have mastered the art of child rearing and the emotions of inevitable separation. As the film begins, it’s been eight practiced years since Thelma entered the fostering business. Everyone in the family is involved – mother, father (Dan Alvaro) and two sons – in lavishing love on the foster child. Even Thelma’s seemingly neglected son, Yuri (Jiro Manio), is no less caring for him. He cooks meals for him and carries him around like a younger brother.
The most crucial care, however, comes from Thelma. She is introduced as a model foster mother, never choosing a child to bring home, whether healthy or, say, afflicted with retardation. Her current “assignment,” John-John, however, is unlike any other: fair-skinned, mild-mannered and good-looking. (The filmmakers opted for an easy sell, it seems.) As John-John’s identity becomes clear – his abandonment at the orphanage, Hospicio de
What we know about Thelma is beyond reproach – except perhaps for the fact that she might be deemed to be slightly naïve. Approached by a woman mendicant carrying a child, Thelma doesn’t hesitate to help her with some loose change. Bianca (Eugene Domingo), the social worker who gives Thelma her assignments, is more cynical but practical: she reproaches Thelma for abetting the crime of begging, and being fooled by someone using a child as an emotional bait.
The penultimate scenes at the plush hotel where Thelma and Bianca have brought John-John to turn him over to his new family (a wealthy American family) are by turns humorous and poignant. It seems like a cruel joke and yet necessary to involve the foster mother in these proceedings –in a final leave-taking, as it were. At one point, Thelma brings out a lovingly made photo album chronicling John-John’s young life. In her best but broken English, she proudly points out the milestones of the child’s early years, those tenuous years that will soon be forgotten.
As Foster Child reveals there is an entire cottage industry revolving around foster care in this country. What director Mendoza and scriptwriter Ralston Jover have brilliantly conceived and ably dramatized is how emotionally costly foster care can prove to be. Giving care, giving love, can never be so depersonalized as to be a simple cut-and-dried economic activity. Foster children should never change hands like mere commodities. Foster Child is a tragic tale that will break your heart.