Shortcomings Review: The Asian American Experience Gets Dissected In Randall Park's Directorial Debut [Sundance]

The idea of representation, as a half-white and half-Filipino person brought up mostly around white people, has always been a weird concept for me. There is a part of me who feels represented on-screen, but also a side that doesn't because I've always sort of looked like the Hollywood default. However, what I do know is that the debate about the worth of Asian representation in American media is a complicated one, especially as anti-Asian hate crimes continue to devastate communities. Can there ever be a straightforward answer?

As we find throughout "Shortcomings," the directorial debut of Randall Park and the adaptation of the 2007 graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, there can't. That's because there is no definitive way to navigate the world as an Asian American — for pessimistic film bro Ben (Justin H. Min), that experience involves being jealous of his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), hating the current state of Asian representation, and managing a fledgling arthouse theater. However, when Miko leaves for an internship, Ben and his lesbian best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) realize he's about to have one hell of a wake-up call. Typically, such an obnoxious and self-righteous character would be an instant turn-off. However, thanks to Tomine's nuanced writing and characterization, following all of Ben's "Shortcomings" is surprisingly fun.

A-holes like us

It gets really, really hard to like Ben as the film progresses. While he's got some agreeable ideas and interests (cinephiles will likely geek over the "Good Morning" and "House" references), he really does suck. However, he thankfully doesn't divulge into a full-blown Men's Rights Asian, which is likely the combination of Adrian Tomine's fleshed-out writing and Justin H. Min's realistic performance. There's a balance between jokes and characteristics that have you laughing at and with Ben, but it always understands that he's the worst, albeit one capable of change. Alice is also a hilarious character, with Sherry Cola's deadpan comedic timing and painfully relatable dating woes making her the film's clear standout. Min and Cola really do have incredible chemistry together, and it only strengthens as the film continues.

Unfortunately, not all characters are given their chance to shine like these two have. Miko feels strangely nonexistent as a character, although her presence does linger throughout the film. This was originally explained through her move to New York, but even when we reunite with her, she feels so one-dimensional despite Ally Maki's best efforts to bring her to life. Equally one-dimensional are the discussions around interracial relationships between Asian and white people. However, those could be argued as purposeful, much like some of the more smugly-winking-at-the-camera quips peppered throughout.

Despite these flaws, "Shortcomings" is a charming debut with plenty of fast-cracking jokes. While perhaps standard dramedy Sundance fare, its nuanced and varied depiction of Asian-American relationships with media and the world at large makes it definitely worth your time.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10

Note: The author of this piece would like to encourage readers to share or donate to the GoFundMe fundraisers for victims of the Monterey Park Lunar New Year shooting.