Directed by Randall Park.
Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, and Timothy Simons.
Follows a trio of young Bay Area urbanites – Ben Tanaka, Miko Hayashi, and Alice Kim – as they navigate a range of interpersonal relationships, traversing the country in search of the ideal connection.
Randall Park just might be one of the funniest and most likeable actors working today, so the prospect of him moving into the filmmaking realm seems ripe with promise. The fruits of his feature debut, Shortcomings, are far from perfect, yet Park’s unique voice suggests embryonic future potential.
In this romantic dramedy – based on Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel and also written by him – Ben (Justin H. Min) is a struggling filmmaker managing a boutique cinema in Berkeley, California. His girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) meanwhile works for a local Asian-American film festival, and when she wins a fancy New York internship, the pair agree to put their relationship uneasily on hold. Though the taste of freedom initially excites Ben, he soon comes to appreciate that his lack of direction and cynical, embittered mindset may themselves be a stifling trap.
While one might be conditioned to wince at an actor-director making their first movie about a struggling filmmaker – especially when it’s premiering at Sundance of all places – Park’s film takes a bold swing with regard to its central characters, almost all of whom are varying degrees of obnoxious or downright unlikeable.
As a result it’s easy enough to forgive some of the first-movie cliches, namely the unironic deployment of vaguely thematically descriptive chapter title cards – a film school trope that probably should’ve been left back in the ’90s with Kevin Smith. Yet Park gets things off to a strong start when an opening sequence offers a gut-busting parody of mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians, even roping in Stephanie Hsu and one of the film’s own stars, Ronnie Chieng, to play the leads.
After watching his fellow cinema attendees lose their collective shit over the mediocre genre fare, Ben can’t help but bitterly lament Hollywood’s tendency to pat itself on the back for the most basic, unimaginative representation. That is to say, letting non-white people make the same broad slop the whites have been producing on a weekly basis for decades. This is only the first of many film-themed gags throughout – including a riotous takedown of the infamous Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – demonstrating that whether you agree with Ben’s perennially irritated mindset or not, Park wants to have the debate.
Ultimately Shortcomings asks Ben – and indeed, the audience – to look between the lines and step outside his black-and-white, siloed-in perception of the world, where he’s smarter than everyone else and most others have ill intent at heart. Park’s script also gamely engages with the confusing realities of modern dating, with respect to both Asian people bristling up against familial pressure, and most anyone who dares to cross racial lines.
Park naturally specifies this to Asians dating white people, and the mixed feelings both Ben and Miko possess about perceived white fetishism of Asians. Ben’s hyper-judgmental, hardline disdain for anyone living differently to his idealised view of the world is its own culturally specific brand of toxic masculinity, for as Miko informs him, dismissing Asian-white relationships as fetishistic only further denies Asian people their own agency to make romantic choices.
Once Miko jets off to New York, though, Park’s films does admittedly settle into a more evident romcom typicality. Of course Ben starts crushing on a cute artiste working at his cinema, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), and later takes an interest in another alluring woman in his midst, Sasha (Debby Ryan). By the time the third act abounds, it threatens to fully indulge the very tired rom-com tropes it’s clearly so fed up of, but mercifully stops short and settles for something more explosive, more funny, and ultimately more honest. If you hated how (500) Days of Summer ended, Shortcomings takes a rather amusing closing jab at it.
Despite generally being far more schematic for the genre than its opening parody might suggest, Tomine’s script offers a pretty solid peppering of laughs amid the home truths. Even though much of the dialogue feels like it was written directly for Film Twitter, there’s a delicious takedown of self-effacing filmbros who can’t get enough of Christopher Nolan, and in a strange gag, Ben laments the mere existence of Disney+ – hilarious given Park’s own involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Things sometimes do get a little too clumsy, though, like casting fellow MCU alum Jacob Batalon as one of Ben’s workers and then cracking a joke about the MCU Spider-Man movies he appears in.
Accepting the sometimes-uneven script, the cast puts in a lot of hard work here, largely refusing to soften the edges of their prickly, easy-to-dislike characters. Justin H. Min is typically strong in a challenging role, making Ben’s journey of growth believable enough even though he spends so much of the story being a caustic asshole. Ally Maki meanwhile brings sure life to Miko, especially during a fiery third act argument so intense it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. Sherry Cola’s Alice will simply be too overbearingly Online for many watching, but that’s certainly not a flaw of her performance. The entire ensemble brings life to Park’s film, and in a snappy cameo as a hilariously condescending waiter, even Park himself.
If more conventional than it seems to think, Randall Park’s debut Shortcomings offers enough amusing insight into Asian representation and the thorny dynamics of romance across the racial spectrum.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.