In the 1980’s, everyone still wanted to come to the United States and chase the American dream. If you lived in the Philippines, the U.S. probably looked especially enticing, as the dictator Ferdinand Marcos watched while his country’s economy fell apart. The Year I Did Nothing begins in 1985, when the Santos family finally gets news of their decade-old application for U.S. citizenship. An aunt who had previously moved to the states had agreed to sponsor them, but thanks to the glacially slow pace of government red tape, it’s taken this long to hear anything back. Now, however, it seems as though things are finally starting to move.
The story is told through the eyes of oldest daughter Christina (Nora Lapena), now fifteen, who’s been obsessing about U.S. pop culture her whole life, watching Laverne & Shirley and The A-Team With younger siblings George Washington (Jared Xander Silva) and Elena (Faith Toledo). Yes, George Washington — mom Lucy (Maria Noble) thought it might help speed up their application, though I’m sure she soon realized the futility of that idea. Elena wasn’t even born when the whole process started. But now they have medical exams and interviews scheduled, and soon they might finally be able to leave — though there’s no telling how soon.
School is just about to start up again, however, and Christina manages to persuade her parents that it’s no use sending them back to school when they might have to pack up at any moment. So begins the longest and strangest summer vacation ever, as the kids wait — and wait — finding ever more creative ways to keep themselves occupied. From wild rides in their neighbor’s Honda Accord, to hanging out at the mall, to facing the ultimate hurdle when their allowances are cut off to save money for the trip, every day is a new adventure. As their last days in the Philippines count down and the political climate begins to heat up, the Santos family find themselves with a front row seat to history as Marcos finally begins to lose control of the country he seized.
The film does a masterful job of blending the larger picture with the daily lives of one family that is both ordinary and unforgettable, trying to move ahead with their plans while still being loyal to the country of their birth during this crisis. Despite some very young actors carrying much of the movie, the performances are realistic and charming, with the interplay among the siblings particularly well done. And there’s also a good sense of place, creating a vivid portrait of Manila in the eighties as well as three kids facing a huge upheaval in their lives. Writer / director Ana Barredo shows us that a year of doing nothing can sometimes lead to some very big events indeed.