Dante Basco (Biker Boyz, Hook) plays Ben Mercado, a talented high school senior who enrolls in a prestigious arts institute in order to realize his dreams of becoming an artist. However, his plans come into conflict with those of his strict immigrant father Roland (Tirso Cruz III), a postal worker intent on seeing Ben become a doctor. Their long-simmering feud—for Ben, a struggle to be accepted by America and therefore reject his Filipino heritage; and for Roland, a quest to give his children a better life than he had—threatens to boil over and ruin the elaborate eighteenth birthday party of Ben’s sister Rose (Bernadette Balagtas). However, it is at the party where everything starts to change for Ben. The celebration emerges as a cultural stew of old world traditions and contemporary urban lifestyle, challenging Ben’s sense of misplaced identity, his choice of friends, even the way he regards his father. He also finds an unexpected confidante (and perhaps a love interest) in Rose’s best friend Annabelle (Joy Bisco). However, the evening’s challenges to Ben are just beginning to surface. The arrival of the Mercado family’s overbearing patriarch (Eddie Garcia) exacerbates tensions between father and son, while the temptation to ditch the relatives to be with his friends at a kegger across town tugs at Ben throughout the evening. Worse, his budding romance with Annabelle is complicated by the presence of hot-headed Augusto (Darion Basco), a former boyhood friend-turned gangsta wannabe—and Annabelle’s ex. In one night, Ben will face the true nature of his relationships with his family, his friends, and himself.
The Debut is based on a ten-minute short film Cajayon had made as his thesis project at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, United States. He incorporated themes from co-writer John Manal Castro's short film, Diary of a Gangsta Sucka. The full-length film took eight years to produce and raise funding for (from 1992 to 2000), and another year to be released in theaters, and two years to go on DVD in 2003 and television. In 2012, it was made available on iTunes, Amazon Video, and VUDU.
After shooting the first ten minutes of his thesis project, Cajayon sent the movie script to potential private financial backers but was turned down. Cajayon and Castro shopped the film to every major Hollywood studios (Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Universal), but were rebuffed.
Eventually, producer Dean Devlin became associated with the project, and the film was able to garner a grant from NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association). The filmmakers were able to set up the film independently. Cajayon tapped Picture Bride producer Lisa Onedera, husband Greg Spence, and Celestial Pictures to produce the film. Adult roles in the movie were cast in the Philippines, where casting director Ernest Eschaler held casting sessions in Manila. The filmmakers were able to cast Tirso Cruz III, Gina Alajar, Eddie Garcia, and comedian Fe De Los Reyes.
Back in the US, the filmmakers put out a casting call for the lead character, eventually selecting Dante Basco, who played Rufio in Steven Spielberg's movie, Hook. Actress Joy Bisco was cast as the female lead.
Production started on October 21, 1997 at the Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School in Montebello, California. Reshoots were done a year after production finished. The musical score and licensing of songs for the soundtrack was done in 1999.
The film had its world premiere as the Opening Night Attraction of the 15th Annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival on May 18, 2000.
Prior to the film's theatrical release in 2001, the film was shown at various film festivals around the United States, including the Hawaii International Film Festival in November 2000. American film critic Roger Ebert, in attendance, was given a private screening of the film and gave the film a "thumbs up." The Debut won the 2000 HIFF Audience Award for Best Feature Film, beating out heavily favored Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film was also awarded Best Feature Film honors by the 2000 San Diego Asian Film Festival.
The Debut’s success on the film festival circuit inspired the filmmakers to launch a theatrical self-distribution campaign. For two years, The Debut’s promotional team (consisting of Cajayon, co-writer John Castro, associate producer Patricio Ginelsa, and a full-time staff of five) traveled to fifteen major cities across the United States and promoted the film directly to Asian Pacific American and mainstream communities. TV commercials were shown on local channels and on local cable systems. The Debut eventually grossed $1.8 million at the box office and won the 2001 Ammy Award for Best Independent Feature Film.
The movie's success in theaters led to a domestic and international distribution deal with Sony Pictures. The film has now been released in theaters, DVD, home video, television in over fifty countries worldwide, iTunes, Amazon Video, and VUDU.
The film has been given positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes post a 74% "fresh" rating for the film. Film critics like Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times applauded the movie.
In addition to Dante Basco in the lead role, the film also features other members of the Basco family (Derek, Darion, Dion, Arianna), along with Eddie Garcia, Tirso Cruz III, and Gina Alajar, as well as character actor Abe Pagtama ( The Flip Side, Kamera Obskura, The Diplomat Hotel, Rekorder, Super Bowl Pepsi Bear Commercial 2006) . Joy Bisco of the ABC daytime soap operas Port Charles and Days of Our Lives rounds out the cast as Annabelle, Ben's love interest.