We’re in any number of filmmaking renaissances this summer. Realistic romantic comedies that don’t bend to the will of fantasy. Accurate and faithful representation from Asian-American perspectives that speak to real life experience. And distinct, unexpected voices approaching familiar genres like uncharted territory. The last of these three wouldn’t apply so much to steady actor Randall Park (Wandavision) on his first try as a feature director, his cadence a bit stiff and anxious to break familiarity. But it’s impossible not to revel in his gumption behind the camera with a truthful love story with universal application.
Shortcomings is Park’s feature debut, a sharp and introspective comedy penned by Adrian Tomine, adapted from his 2007 graphic novel. Though it’s possible the written page better suits the common character archetypes he skewered versus a straight feature where the lead, a mid-30s adult named Ben (Justin H. Min) can’t seem to define his life. What his desires are, his idea of the future. He’s stuck in first gear, a little too comfortable in his ways, lacking further motivation to take that next step. He’s happily employed as manager of a Berkeley, CA arthouse theater. He’s dating promising indie filmmaker Miko (Ally Maki) with whom their level of communication has reached stagnation after years together. And he enjoys delving into classic cinema – anything in the Criterion Collection, specifically – and chatting it up with gay bestie Alice (Sherry Cola), often serving as a beard/decoy boyfriend in front of her parents.
Before long, there’s a massive shove, not a gentle nudge in Ben’s wake, when Miko mentions she’s leaving for a three-month internship in New York. Awkward signs of support lead to their relationship hitting the skids, temporarily. Enough time on Ben’s end to explore what’s out there, making himself available on the dating scene, First attracting the attention of new theater hire and performance artist Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), and later a random fling turned serious test Sasha (Debby Ryan). Though with time passing, as Ben discovers a shift in his priorities, he proceeds to question what sort of spark is left with Miko, and whether his mistakes in love are part of a pattern that drives his crushes away.
Much of what Park is doing as a director is what we as the audience are attempting, magnified tenfold. To try and make such a silly, insecure, and bullheaded lead character like Ben, well, likable. When much of the time he’s a self-pitying grump seeking a crash course in humility. That’s the point he looks to make with his lead, the mere convention of trying to root for someone who struggles to root for themselves. Its effectiveness as a single-minded character study is almost scary, and yet no less compelling. Even as the shtick grows old, Park’s mindfulness wins the day here in answering just why one may turn their nose or shake their head at an archetypal man-child resistant to change, growth, or even reflection toward his quirks.
Perhaps embellished more artfully in Tomine’s novel, Park wastes no chance to highlight Ben’s flaws as thematic goals to swipe past in the hope he can supplant his mild narcissism. And along the way, there’s that space to poke fun at familiar conventions, the arena still eager to pick them apart after Joy Ride slammed the door open a mere month ago. Ben runs the gamut, showing signs he has a wider attraction to the “western media beauty ideal” over her actual girlfriend, masking that by way of his equally valid (or invalid) taste in culture. If only that appreciation could extend toward his immediate peers, supporting their creative projects. He lacks that framework to speak to any manner of individualism, toward himself or others, and can’t quite hide it well.
Neither of the four women in Ben’s radar are immune to that idea, either, but only his inquisitive mind can nail down those foibles, if only to pacify his own. That makes him more of a target of ridicule, exposing his vulnerability. And in turn, an inability to hold his tongue when speaking frankly to Sasha, to Autumn, or even to Alice and her promising girlfriend Meredith (a delightful yet underused Sonoya Mizuno). Through Tomine’s way of words, the cleverness is unending, even when the steam runs low. A slight shock with this film running a brisk 90 minutes and change. Nothing lags, as much as it briefly stalls while Park, and cinematographer Santiago Gonzalez (Black is King) quickly reframe focus back to center, bright and warm location settings right in the forefront.
Their execution is as prompt as Min’s lead portrayal is biting and waggish. For sure, yes, to dwell on a self-centered slacker for the top-billed character is counterproductive. But the level of attention given when the goal is to slap some sense into his rational thinking more than justifies the probe. And Min always has his eye on the ball, often gaining the upper hand with a witty zinger or droll observation well before his costars catch up. Not to say Ryan or Gevinson can accomplish that same peak; they just take their time to build up the energy around them, then go for the jugular. Ryan, the former Disney Channel star surprised me here, her footing in grown-up cinema all but secured, while still retaining that bubbly, blunt personality. She only needs to contend with Cola for the title of scene-stealer. Between this and Joy Ride, she’s enjoying a banner year with her unapologetic comic style, further boosting her strengths as a dramatic actor as well. Albeit, in subtle ways, but all still wonderfully noticeable.
The character of Ben is still an impossibly tough sell to get behind. The way Park, Tomine, and Min work around that hurdle does more than merely soften the blow. They justify every reason why one could not pine for Ben in his moment of awkward personal attacks, and then turn them into a distinct benefit. Shortcomings might sell itself short, tricking the viewer to hinge on what it couldn’t better accomplish, only to slowly reaffirm them on what it can. It is a funny romantic comedy, with humor and heart in fair balance, anchored by a talented ensemble whose knack for performance does wonders for the latter. Only when Park needs to transition between moods does it come off a bit tricky. Still, for his first time as an auteur, it’s a solid try, leaving me quite enthralled. I just knew that like Ben’s quest for love, there’s much, much room for improvement (B+; 3.5/5)
Shortcomings opens in select theaters across Seattle and vicinity August 4; rated R for language throughout, sexual material and brief nudity; 92 minutes.