The first surprise is that Colma: The Musical plays it straight. You might imagine a musical about teenagers in a suburb south of San Francisco in which the majority of the population is dead to be an ironic tongue-in-cheek affair, using bursting-into-song conventions to poke fun at metastasizing franchise culture -- Mallrats with a groove. ("Shakey's is now iHop!" the news announces during the opening number.) But Colma doesn't deflate or abuse the conventions of the musical; it relies on them to tell three heartbreakingly honest tales about growing up.
With brand-new high school diplomas and no idea what to do, Billy (Jake Moreno), Rodel (H.P. Mendoza) and Maribel (L.A. Renigen) are trying to find their way through a landscape of crap jobs, irritable parents, unexplored sexual desires -- and searching for a way out of Colma. "Things are gonna get better," they sing to a snappy beat as they sneak, nervous, into a college party, where if you "act the part, they'll never know!"
That particular party ends with a hilarious drunken song-and-dance number on top of a parked car, but after this early highlight, things get worse rather than better for our trio of friends. Rodel comes out to his father and is promptly beaten up, and Maribel can't seem to get laid. Billy falls in love and gets a part in a regional theater production, but the success only distances him from his friends.
L.A. Renigen in Colma: The Musical© Roadside Attractions
There hasn't been a movie that lays out the confusion and heartbreak of the first tentative steps into adulthood this mercilessly since Ghost World
, when Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannson had to leave their teenage years behind and couldn't help but hurt each other in the process. First time filmmaker Richard Wong's Colma
, quite purposefully, lacks all of Zwigoff and Clowes' hipster polish, and Mendoza, who also wrote the screenplay, never allows his characters to mask their feelings behind cool irony. Like the Irish charmer Once
, another touching foray into rejuvenating the musical, Colma
wears its heart on its sleeve.