There are very few films that touch your heart, even if there are some obvious flaws in them. Every story about music prodigies is effective, and Keys to the Heart is indeed one of them. This Filipino Netflix original, directed by Kerwin Go, is a remake of the 2018 Korean film of the same name, in which a has-been boxer tries hard to reconnect with his estranged family. Keys to the Heart was released on the platform on October 4, 2023.
Keys to the Heart follows the story of Joma, a aspiring boxer, his estranged mother Sylvia, and her other son Jayjay, who is autistic but a gifted pianist. Sylvia is diagnosed with cancer, and she wants to look for her older son, who she believes can take up the responsibility of taking care of his half-brother once she is gone. Joma has had a troubled history with his mother and is unwilling to make amends. He ends up having to live with his mother and autistic brother after getting in an accident caused by a rich heiress, Anette Labayen. Joma is having trouble fitting in with his family, and he goes through a journey with them. It forms the crux of this one-hour, forty-seven-minute film.
The premise of Keys to the Heart is simple yet effective. The screenplay is shaky at parts, but it allows the audience to go through a journey that Sylvia, Joma, and Jayjay take together as a family. Joma is new to the setting because his mother has been absent most of his life, and he carries a resentment towards her for abandoning him during his crucial years of growing up. This is the cathartic journey of a man who had festering anger issues that stemmed from his troubled childhood, which was laced with emotional and physical abuse. Joma’s arc is well charted, and it is mixed with the right kind of emotions. His anger and bitterness toward his mother are understandable and justified to some extent. The writing does not go over board with the tsunami of emotions Joma is going through. He probably knew his mother was not at fault, but the abandonment issues festered up unpleasantly. The screenplay does a good job of portraying the feelings that the leads go through.
The story, at its core, is also about parents who want to see their children happy no matter what, be it Sylvia or Roldan, Annette’s father. Every movie that is based on music has an antagonist who does not believe in the talent. This cliche trope is used in this film, but the writer spent just enough time on it for it to not take over the whole narrative.
There are theatrics and dramatics added for the sake of entertainment, but they do not ruin the narrative at any point. The writing takes time to establish relationships between characters, which is a sign of a good screenplay. There is no rushed storytelling, even though the runtime of the film is not that long. However, some plot points were completely forgotten by the writers and were hurriedly executed, especially in the end.
The story, halfway through, abandons the relationship Sylvia was building with her older son, Joma. Also, aren’t the makers, in general, done with the trope where mothers hide their faltering health conditions from their kids just to protect their feelings? It undermines their ability to make sound decisions in times of health emergencies such as this. The emotional angle around Sylvia’s health and Joma’s finding out is understandable, but it kind of becomes predictable after a point. The subplot surrounding Joma’s boxing journey is abandoned, and it is utilized randomly in the film to tie up the loose ends and complete the film. Another subplot involving Joma wanting to move to Canada is not explored in detail. The writer seemed to want to bring in as many obstacles as possible to showcase conflicts in Joma’s head, but they could not establish the same because of poor implementation.
The direction of the film is slow, but it allows the viewers to savor the relationship dynamics between all three members of this tiny family. Joma considers his relationship with his mother and brother as new and grows into it as the movie progresses. Kerwin Go’s direction is sensitive and does not cross into the hyper mode by over – focusing Jayjay’s disability to further the narrative. The pre-climax concert is a very well-directed segment, and even though the result was surprising, the depth with which it was written and executed elevated the viewing experience.
The writers did a decent job of portraying a family with an autistic member. However, viewers are not sure if the makers did the right research into mannerisms of an autistic person. Some of the nuances and habits are captured well, but makers, in general, still have a long way to go when it comes to the right representation and writing stories about children or adults with autism. Kudos to the crew of Keys to the Heart for not allowing the screenplay to exploit this condition as nothing more than a tool to further the story.
A movie based on music has got to have some excellent background pieces that blend and complement with the narrative. It is as if a lot of classical music pieces become characters in the movie. Francis De Veyra’s music is exquisite, and it absorbs the viewers into the realistic world-building done by the director. There is a sincerity with which this music is presented in the movie, which further makes this film sentimental.
The performances of the leads are where the film faces issues. Even though the emotions are rightly placed in the screenplay, the performances could only bring out those feelings in certain parts of the film. Zanjoe Marudo is good as Joma and brings out his emotions towards the end of the movie, where he has to do the heavy lifting. Elijah Canlas, as Jayjay, does not go so far as to start overacting territory, which is a good sign of a good actor coupled with fine direction and a decent screenplay. Dolly De Leon, as the mother, becomes overly dramatic in parts, but it is her arc on paper that does not allow her to go extra with too many emotions. Michelle Dee, as Annette, is brilliant as the mentor, who is as sensitive as Jayjay.
Keys to the Heart, as the name suggests, tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings till the end. It will make you teary-eyed and smile at the same time. Give it a watch.