There are now more than one million telemarketing agents in the Philippines, with the country having overtaken India as the call center capital of the world in recent years. In the West, such enterprises are generally seen as modern factories, which suck the life out of expendable staff by sticking them in front of screens for long periods of time, but in developing territories they represent a decent opportunity for workers with sufficient English ability. Prime Cruz’s near-romance Sleepless focuses on two such employees although their shared career choice is based less on the paycheck than it is on lifestyle convenience as both are insomniacs who prefer the night shift and want to avoid the pressures of corporate ladder climbing.
Gem (Glaiza de Castro) is a high performer at her company who is assigned the task of training newly hired Barry (Dominic Roco); Barry struggles at first because of his lackadaisical manner, but after a few accent-related tips from Gem, he makes some sales and settles into the job. They really connect, though, when it turns out that both live in the same apartment building and frequent the same nearby convenience store when unable to sleep. Soon, they are debating which weapons would be best for surviving a zombie apocalypse, speculating on the conversations of couples at eateries, and practicing their skateboarding moves. The main obstacle to this burgeoning romance initially seems to be Gem’s affair with married professional Vince (TJ Trinidad). However, deeper, family-orientated problems emerge from the background that explain why both are hiding from life’s greater opportunities in the call center environment while also threatening to burst their comfortably isolated bubble.
Vince is exasperated when Gem rebuffs his offer to help her secure a more prestigious job and argues that call centers exploit their employees, but the film is rarely explicitly critical in its presentation of the telemarketing industry. Both Gem and Barry could do something else – he has a talent for drawing, which she finds charming – but choose to stay off the career track while their place of work is presented as a reasonable environment where employees seem to get along and the thrill of bonuses alleviates hours of boredom. The call center is instead just one of the film’s means of illustrating character through space. Gem’s apartment is a mess, Barry’s looks like he wants to be able to pack up and leave at a moments notice, while the upscale restaurants and art galleries that Vince takes Gem to have stylish surfaces that make her feel out of place. Some of Cruz’s symbolism is rather obvious: Gem and Barry work in a field that requires communication skills but have trouble expressing themselves, while the broken light in Gem’s bathroom signifies a life in need of fixing. However, the sense of stasis that Cruz creates is otherwise quite effortless, making it easy to access these lives.
In-keeping with its title, Sleepless has a woozy feeling, accentuated by Tey Clamor’s flickering nighttime cinematography, which at times recalls Lance Acord’s compositions for Lost in Translation (2003). There are significant differences between the two films as Sleepless concerns locals with modest incomes who survey Manila from the rooftops of their company and apartment building rather than awestruck foreign visitors gazing out at Tokyo from the windows of a luxury hotel. Still, both frequently position their characters in a way that emphasises emptiness in the frame and feature literal instances of disconnection. The jetlagged characters in Sofia Coppola’s film fail to make themselves understood during awkward phone calls back to the United States whereas Cruz has Gem losing contact with customers because of system failure and unable to reach the busy Vince. At one point, Gem lies in bed scrolling through Facebook newsfeed, but we never see her as part of a social scene.
Set to a selection of atmospheric electro-pop songs by Filipino artist B.P. Valenzuela, Sleepless moves at a pace that is unhurried but certainly not meandering, as Cruz knows exactly where he is going with his seemingly easygoing characters. He is helped immeasurably by nuanced performances from his relatable leads and viewers who are seduced by the film’s nocturnal rhythm will be yearning for the friendship between its central pair of deliberate underachievers to develop into something more.