The setting–a rural Philippine village called Malawig–is unfamiliar, but the story is all too commonplace in “Small Voices,” a well-meaning but feeble little tale of Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi), a young schoolteacher whose boundless enthusiasm reinvigorates her class and her school. The mechanism is a chorus of students she forms to win a regional contest, to the considerable annoyance of the principal, a woman who sells frozen treats on the side and brings out the newer books only during visits by government officials, and her fellow teachers. The young woman’s dedication also brings out opposition from many of the parents, who (in the fashion familiar from plenty of period pictures about European locales and the U.S., too) need their kids to help them work the fields. But her grit eventually wins over lots of her detractors.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with this narrative, apart from its utter familiarity, and there’s an agreeably homely feel to the proceedings, in terms both of the production, which is modest in the extreme, and of the acting, which is suitably amateurish. But even the most tolerant viewer is likely to be incredulous at one of the subplots–that dealing with local rebels with whom the father of two of the teacher’s favorite students is associated. The problem isn’t just that the thread invites a tragic turn (which is very poorly staged when it comes). It’s that the characterization of the rebels is so wildly implausible. Certainly the sad-faced, slow-moving insurgents depicted here could never be seen as threats to anybody; they’re just convenient–and conveniently sympathetic–victims of oppression. As such they’re no more than melodramatic devices, and not very credible ones at that.
One hesitates to be too hard on a picture like “Small Voices,” which certainly has its heart in the right place, as well as the virtue of introducing viewers to an unusual locale. But despite its motif of harmony, the movie has a pretty tin ear.