Randall Park makes his directorial debut with Shortcomings, a non-rom-com centered on the kind of misanthropic twenty-something that could have been played by Ethan Hawke in the 1990s, but is now played by Justin H. Min (After Yang’s Yang).
Adrian Tomine adapts his graphic novel of the same name, and much of Tomine’s intent survives in Park’s hands, as Shortcomings picks through a thorny knot of identity, privilege, romance, and friendship through the eyes of Ben (Min), an aspiring filmmaker stalled out after dropping out of film school. He works a dead-end job at an arthouse theater—Jacob Batalon and TikTok star Scott Seiss appear as the snobby popcorn slingers—has a rich and dissatisfied girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), and a loyal if uncomplimentary best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola).
Shortcomings takes a shot at Crazy Rich Asians right off the top—with CRA star Ronny Chieng and Everything Everywhere All At Once breakout Stephanie Hsu—as Ben and Miko sit through a film festival screening of a rom-com centered on a rich Asian couple. Ben is disgusted by the “glossy mainstream capitalist glorification” represented by the movie, but Miko points out even if he didn’t like it, it’s okay if others do, and more importantly, a successful mainstream movie with an Asian cast will open doors for other, perhaps more artistically minded Asian filmmakers (which is exactly what CRA did), such as Ben aspires to be. But Ben is so bent on his high-minded ideals and arthouse cinema he can’t enjoy simple mass entertainment. In fact, Ben can’t enjoy pretty much anything.
Min walks the fine line of playing a rather detestable character—self-involved, rude, bad friend, worse boyfriend—while still maintaining enough charm that we root for Ben to pull his head out of his ass. Ben is deeply unlikeable for much of the film, but he’s not a total lost cause. He’s just aimless and uncertain and perhaps wrangling with the notion he isn’t as special as he hoped to be. He also has an unexamined attraction to white women, while also lambasting white men who date Asian women, which Ben assumes to be an automatic act of fetishization. Anyone who tries to point out the inherent hypocrisy of his stance, which several people do, is met with total denial, as Ben is incapable of introspection.
If this sounds kind of annoying, it is. Ben is a challenging protagonist, but that’s the whole point of Shortcomings, both as Tomine’s work, and also Park’s, as his choices behind the camera deliberately cast these characters in unflattering lights of varying degrees. Alice is probably the most together person in the film, but she isn’t out to her conservative, religious family, and would rather move to entirely across the country than be honest with her parents. It’s understandable, but these are not characters engaged in bold acts of truth-telling unless they’re hurling insults at one another. In this way, Park meets the meta challenge outlined at the beginning of the film with the CRA parody, to make something less glossy, less frothy, less personable than Crazy Rich Asians and still tell a compelling story.
He’s mostly successful. His direction is solid, and half the challenge for an actor moving behind the camera is just not biting off more than they can chew, and Park set himself an attainable goal with a lowkey dramedy that features nothing more ambitious than lots of walk-and-talks. The bay area is uncommonly sunny and bright through Park’s eye, and the use of bright color throughout the film is a fun contrast with Ben’s sour personality. Rather than cast Ben in rain and gloom and bleak apartment walls, Park envelops him in sunshine and color and Miko’s lavish apartment, and which just makes his asshole behavior more grating, because he is the thundercloud ruining everyone else’s nice day. It’s a clever use of visuals to underscore how Ben moves through the world.
Shortcomings is the kind of twenty-something angst dramedy we’re used to seeing at Sundance, but not unlike Crazy Rich Asians breathing new life into rom-coms just by shifting focus to a new community, Shortcomings also benefits from its milieu. The best parts of the film are the scenes of evolving conversation about race, identity, want, and fetish, and Ben’s stubborn refusal to see how his race impacts him, unless it’s convenient to his personal narrative of persecution, is one of his most annoying traits. Ben will test some people’s patience, but Shortcomings is worthwhile both for Min’s performance and Park’s quietly confident direction, telling a simple story well.
Attached: The Shortcomings team at Sundance.