Sonny Calvento’s Surreal Tale of Resilience, ‘Primetime Mother’, Makes its Way to TIFF 2023

TORONTO, Canada—In a recent announcement, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2023 welcomes thought-provoking short film Primetime Mother, written and directed by the history-making young Filipino visionary Sonny Calvento, to its official selection in this year’s Short Cuts programme, “showcasing 42 live action narrative, documentary, and animated shorts by a groundbreaking group of filmmakers representing 23 countries.”

Calvento’s cinematic mastery is evident as he skillfully navigates the emotional terrain of motherhood in this surrealist portrait of love and sacrifice. By intertwining personal narratives with societal reflections, Calvento offers a poignant and nuanced exploration of motherhood. 

Official film poster courtesy of Sonny Calvento

In the film, we meet Minda, played by acclaimed actress Meryll Soriano, a 45-year-old mother with an unyielding dream amid struggles with an ailing child. The film beautifully captures Minda’s evolution from a devoted mother to a figure of resilience as she was thrust in a chance to survive in a high-stakes TV game show “My Amazing Mama.”

As Minda confronts these seemingly insurmountable challenges, her tenacity in the face of adversity becomes an inspiration not only to her fellow participants but to everyone around her. This tale of maternal love and the resilience it ignites forms the core of the film promises to resonate deeply with audiences as it unearths the unbreakable bond between a mother’s unwavering devotion and her pursuit of dreams amidst life’s trials. 

Calvento’s intent in crafting this narrative is to question the very definition of a “good” mother. In a patriarchal society like the Philippines, where traditional roles often dictate a woman’s life revolving around serving her family, the director challenges these norms head-on. The film delivers a commentary on the pervading depiction of mothers on television, who conform to the roles prescribed by society.

Official images courtesy of Sonny Calvento

Primetime Mother uses the backdrop of a television game show to convey its narrative, stemming from his years of experience in the industry, recognizing how television often reinforces patriarchal standards. By juxtaposing the story against this backdrop, Calvento underscores the need to challenge these norms, highlighting the right of every mother to nurture her aspirations and seek fulfillment beyond the traditional roles.

Through his film, Calvento navigates the transformative nature of motherhood, illustrating how daily challenges can lead to personal evolution. The characters in the said film represent a spectrum of maternal experiences–from those reduced to mere routines to those who find themselves neglected in their pursuit of others’ happiness.

Calvento ultimately aims to create a space for unconventional narratives, emphasizing that mothers, no matter how dedicated, deserve agency over their dreams and desires. He writes, “It is my intention in making this film to challenge these standards, because I know deep in my heart that as much as how loving Filipino mothers are, they also have the right to have their own dreams and sense of fulfillment.”

Official images courtesy of Sonny Calvento

Drawing from his own experiences, Calvento’s relationship with his mother forms a crucial underpinning for the film. His mother’s decision to leave their family when he was just a toddler left a profound impact on him. Through the lens of his evolving perspective, he came to understand that her departure was a brave act of self-preservation, rather than abandonment. This understanding reshaped his perception of motherhood, paving the way for a more nuanced and compassionate portrayal.

In a press statement shared with Rank Magazine, he writes, “My mother’s persona is different from these patriarchal standards and from what we see on Philippine television. When I was barely two years old, she left our family because she knew staying in our household would destroy her sanity. Growing up, I hated my mother. Being raised into a catholic school and a patriarchal community, I could not grasp into the idea of being left by my own mother at an early age.”

“It was only about four years ago, after meeting her in the flesh, when I realized that leaving me was the best decision that my mother had to make to keep her sanity. She knew that her constant fights with my father came to a point when she is on the verge of a breakdown, hindering her from functioning as a mother. She is a woman with so much love who suffered torture and eventually became a broken person and abandoned her kids.”

Official images courtesy of Sonny Calvento

TIFF, one of the most respected film festivals in the world, has seen the rise of important directors and films then until now. As TIFF highlighted, the Short Cuts programme has served as a platform that introduced many of world cinema’s most acclaimed filmmakers, including recent breakout talents as Charlotte Wells (Aftersun), Saim Sadiq (Joyland), and Luis De Filippis (Something You Said Last Night). 

In 2021, Calvento’s first short film Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss became the first Filipino short film in Sundance Film Festival. It also premiered in Locarno Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest and Shanghai International Film Festival. The same film won the Audience Award in Locarno Shorts Week 2023.

The inclusion of this Calvento’s short film stands as a testament to the country’s ability to create narratives that resonate universally, solidifying its place on the global stage.

With additional text by Leo Balante