Romance films in Indonesia can be appallingly bad. They often portray corrosive jealousy, possessiveness and childish low-stakes power games as endearingly romantic qualities in a relationship. The genre's worst traits were embodied earlier this year in the film Eiffel I'm in Love 2, a tale of two emotionally stunted dotards which was so bad I believe it may have been a covert attempt by the state to undermine Valentine's Day.
Dilan 1990, based on a best-selling novel and released about a month before Eiffel, manages to transcend the limits of the genre. It takes us back in time, to the languid glory days of 1990 and an upscale part of Bandung where high school lothario Dilan begins vying for the affections of Milea, a Kelly Kapowski-type crush who has just relocated there from Jakarta. There is nothing inherently special or original about the plot: hornball teenage kid pursues crush, charms her with grand gestures and witty dialogue, puppy love ensues (this being Indonesia, you can be sure the romance never escalates above the tamest of tame G-rated gestures of love). There is a subplot involving roving teenage youth gangs, but that thread is tripped up by its own ridiculousness which is about on the same level as Marlon Brando in the Wild One aggressively scat singing at a local restaurant.
The film benefits from its earnestness. It's good wholesome fun and succeeds in capturing the elusive feeling of a memory, like an echo of teenage love in our own pasts. But more than anything, the film is carried by the charisma of Iqbaal Dhiafakhri who plays Dilan. He is just legitimately very charming in this role, and so he gets the audience on his side from the beginning. He's got great lines (I'm guessing this part of the screenplay benefited from being adapted from the book) that are clever and endearing. He is a charming little rebel in the vein of James Dean, and without him I don't think the film would work half as well.
Dilan is a big hit in Indonesia. It had already been out for several weeks when we went to see it, and most of the shows for the afternoon and evening were already sold out hours in advance. The theater I watched it in was packed and the audience was loving it, which is always a special feeling when a packed theater is collectively feeling a movie. It appeals to the middle-aged generation, as it reminds them of their youth. And it appeals to young people, although I confess I have no idea what young people like these days, because Dilan functions as an avatar of everything they wish they could be: confident, charming and just a little bit rebellious while still being basically good and decent.
It is cute, charming and fun and I can't describe enough how nice it is to see an Indonesian romance film that doesn't make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a pencil.