Cinema One Originals is the annual independent film festival put forth by the cable channel of the same name operated by network giant, ABS-CBN. Since its inception in 2005, the festival has aimed to give a platform for the diverse talents and voices of veteran and upcoming Filipino filmmakers.

The festival has seen the birth of important Filipino films like Sigried Barros-Sanchez’ Ang Anak ni Brocka, Dennis Marasigan’s Sa North Diversion Road, Jerrold Tarog’s Confessional, Sigried Andrea Bernardo’s Lorna, Eduardo Dayao’s Violator, Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, and That Thing Called Tadhana, and Dan Villegas’ Changing Partners.

Now in its 14th-year-run, Cinema One Originals and its chosen films, dissect what it takes to be human—flawed yet still remarkable. Each selected entry is described to create a dialogue on the very fabric that permeates through every viewer’s humanity—the perfection in its imperfection, true to its tagline, “I am Original.”

Iyah Mina plays the titular character, Mamu, a middle-aged transgender sex worker.

Among this year’s entries is first-time festival entry director and LGBT advocate, Rod Singh’s Mamu; and a Mother Too. The film centers on the story of Mamu (played by stand-up-comedienne Iyah Mina in her introductory role), a middle-aged transgender woman and her plight to make ends meet through life as a sex worker and an aspiring cook. With the superficial demands of her profession, Mamu entertains the idea of saving up for breast implants to keep up with younger, “fresher” competition. She lives with her long-time boyfriend, Vincent (Arron Villaflor), a young, struggling mechanic who wishes to make a better life for the both of them by working in Cebu—which Mamu disapproves of completely.

Things take a turn when, unexpectedly, Mamu had to adopt Bona (EJ Jallorina) following the untimely death of her sister. Thrust in an entirely new environment, the crossdressing teenager goes through a coming of age of her own—discovering a newfound sense of belonging with a new family, a new set of friends, and even love interests and lustful yearnings in the form of good-looking young barrio men, the boy-next-door Kiko (Markus Paterson) and the hunk Franco (Jovani Manansala).

Young actor, EJ Jallorina stands out as teen transgender woman in the film.

Mamu; and a Mother Too is a rich, unapologetic narrative that mines its storytelling on unembellished depictions of the daily lives of its characters—carefully peeling off layers particularly off its lead character’s humanity—from commonly-misconstrued cultural and societal misfit to a loved, generous “matriarch” to her self-made extended family of friends and girls in the same trade.

The film may not have portrayed a linear narrative for its viewers to follow nor employed fancy plot devices like flashbacks, nor dream sequences to aid in painting the wholeness of its lead’s character but instead succeeded in letting events unspool as it is, portraying the richness of Mamu’s character—her imperfections, insecurities, choices, principles, and disposition—both in small moments of triumph and in the dark.

The mother-daughter dynamic grew naturally between Mamu and Bona, taking the audiences with them in their journey.

One look at the film’s trailer and it’s easy to think that the movie would tread an all-too-familiar ground already successfully trodden by previously released Die Beautiful by Jun Lana, navigating tropes of the many aspects of a transgender woman’s life. However, Singh’s Mamu stood its ground as a playful, fists-up portrayal—bold and free in not “exposing” the lives of those at the underbelly of society but showing this extraordinary plight for human survival.

It is through this honesty and sensitive direction that Singh elevated the story of those whose characters and lives may be considered taboo, and transformed them into real, relatable mirrors of the everyday man or woman–celebrating the fact that, at their very core, they are just like everyone else, with foibles and dreams. Singh, together with the film’s screenwriters, banked on this sensitivity to bring to life characters that audiences grew to root for.

Iyah Mina’s nuanced portrayal for her first lead role is commendable. Her eyes convey effortless, honest emotions—free from put-on melodramatic gloss resulting into a raw, genuine performance. EJ Jallorina as the adopted niece-turned-daughter, is a crowd favorite, serving as the parallel character to Mamu, whose innocent coming-of-age journey becomes muddled up with teen angst. Arron Villaflor is also to be lauded, transforming from the household’s resident object of affection to a father figure and a genuine love interest—slowly stripping its character of stereotypical sketches of abusive male partners.

This effortless, symbiotic relationship made it easy for the audience to grow as the characters grew with the right blend of real-life drama and comedy, making viewers sympathize even to the most grim, and horrific incidents in the film. Overall, Mamu; and a Mother Too is a ride you will enjoy as you will not forget for a long while.