After the tragic death of his mother, 12-year-old Hector (Jacob Kiron Shalov) is sent to live with his estranged grandmother (Angie Ferro) in a Manila railroad shantytown called Santa Mesa. Stunned by emotions of loss, and shocked by a city and culture so foreign to him, Hector is soon mixed up with Miguel (Pierro Rodriguez) and the local teenage street gang. Hector is unsure of Miguel’s ideas of fun, but follows along in hopes of trying make friends with the other kids, including his pretty teenage neighbour, Sel (Melissa Leo).
During his initiation into the gang, Hector gets caught breaking into the home of Jose (Jaime Tirelli), a 59-year-old disgruntled photographer. As a result, Hector promises to do daily house chores for Jose. Before long, Jose takes a liking to Hector and discovers the boy’s knack for photography. As Hector learns to see the world through the camera lens, he develops a connection with Sel and discovers beauty in the people and environment around him.
Meanwhile, Hector’s grandmother struggles with the uncertainty about how to raise him, and the history and language barrier between them increasingly causes conflicts. Miguel is furious with jealousy over Hector’s friendship with Sel, and Sel’s troubles at home lead her to dream of a running away.
Hector is still haunted by the loss of his mother, which eventually leads him to uncover Jose’s regretful feelings for a beautiful woman named Rosa. Hector naïvely tries to resolve their problems and reunite them, but instead he discovers that individuals must choose their own paths.
Ron Morales’s first feature film, Santa Mesa is a warm-hearted story about the discovery of friendship, family, and growing up. Inspired by his own experiences as a Filipino-American in the Philippines, Morales explores the themes of cultural displacement, adolescence, and social conflict through Hector’s innocent eyes.