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LFF 2023 Review: Shortcomings – “Randall Park’s directorial debut about young Asian Americans evokes the spirit of 90s slacker comedies”

Actor Randall Park’s directorial debut Shortcomings about young Asian Americans in Berkeley evokes the spirit of 90s slacker comedies. Adapted from Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novella of the same name, it’s mostly shot without any nods to comic books, apart from being broken into loose chapters.

Twenty-something Ben (After Yang’s Justin Min) is misanthropic, jaded and snobbish in a similar vein to High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon. His mouthy outbursts on pop culture are taking their toll on his long-term girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki). Both are Japanese American, and live together, but where Miko is progressing in her film industry career, Ben is a film school dropout and works in a small, struggling arthouse cinema staffed by misfits. In the film’s opening scene, Ben tells us exactly who he is before he’s said a word, he sits looking unimpressed while a huge crowd goes wild at a film that parodies Crazy Rich Asians at a festival Miko has been working at.

Ben and Miko have an argument about representation on the way home. He slams the film as a “garish mainstream rom-com” that glorifies capitalism. Miko fires back that those blockbusters help fund the kind of indie movies he likes. Yes, films like Shortcomings, you can feel Park just behind the fourth wall with that one.

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Back home at their stylish apartment, Miko catches Ben watching porn and is more disturbed by the fact that all the women are white, something he tries to deny. But predictably, Ben’s
eye wanders over to new employee Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) who is a kind of manic pixie nightmare girl/performance artist. Miko calls him out again and soon announces that she’ll be moving to New York for an internship. The other woman in Ben’s life is Alice (Sherry Cola), and she’s just such a joy to watch. Alice’s presence really elevates the film and gives it most of its funny moments. She’s a wickedly funny, snarky lesbian who calls Ben out at every opportunity, in the way only a really good friend can. During every exchange with Ben, I found myself wishing I was watching Alice’s story instead. Their friendship is really the heart of the film.

With Miko away, Ben decides he can play. After a cringey attempt to hook up with Autumn, he has a brief fling with husky grad student Sasha (Debby Ryan), who is indeed another white woman, one that could have been plucked from a 90s Kevin Smith movie. Their meet-cute start is short-lived and leads to some arguments about interracial relationships, what does and doesn’t constitute fetishisation. This theme recurs later in the film, and it’s a relief to finally hear Miko’s perspective. Partly so we can have a break from Ben’s ranting for a few precious moments. He is an utterly frustrating character, and Min brings just enough insecurity to the role to make him worth caring about.

Story-wise, the film follows some well-trodden beats. But one of its strengths is understanding the nuances of representation and acknowledging different experiences and perspectives. In one scene Alice and Ben argue (albeit with jokes) about Japan and Korea’s painful history — after she has asked him to be her fake boyfriend at a Korean church, if he doesn’t reveal his Japanese surname to her family. Ben feels removed from his Japanese heritage too, his parents have lived in the US for generations, and, unlike Miko, he can’t speak Japanese.

The third act takes place on the east coast. Alice bolts for NYC after another terrible encounter with a woman, but quickly finds love when she gets there. Shortly after she leaves, and with little going on for him in Berkley — Ben follows. He’s on a self-righteous quest to try and save his relationship with Miko. But it seems the women in Ben’s life are thriving living thousands of miles away from him.

Having been a little underused in the first half of the film, Maki gets a great monologue that challenges a lot of Ben’s scathing criticisms. Finally, it looks like Ben might be developing some self-awareness. Ultimately, his redemption arc feels a little rushed and hollow, and there are times where I wonder if the story might have been better suited to a TV series instead. But, if someone ever greenlights an Alice Kim sequel or series, I’m absolutely here for it.

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