The post Randall Park’s Shortcomings Playfully Pokes at the Arthouse World: Sundance Review appeared first on Consequence.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Ben is a jerk; Ben is miserable; Ben is a hypocrite. Most importantly, Ben is our protagonist.
In Randall Park’s directorial debut, the bold choice is made to give us an almost completely unlikeable main character. Justin H. Min, best known for his role on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy and Sundance 2022 player After Yang, tackles the thorny role head-on in Shortcomings, making a strong case for future leading man opportunities in the process. His character, Ben, runs a local arthouse movie theater in the Bay Area, coping with the fact that he failed to chase his own filmmaking dreams by cutting down people who are giving it their best shot.
His girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), works for an Asian-American Film Festival and is fed up with the constant negativity. So when Miko accepts an internship in New York City and the couple decide to go on a vaguely-defined “break,” Ben begins to spiral. The movie theater is on shaky ground, his best friend Alice (a dynamic Sherry Cola) is busy with her own endeavors, and all new art sucks, if you ask him. Shortcomings was adapted from a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine, who is on board here as the screenwriter as well.
I’m A Fan of Genre Auteurs: Shortcomings is playful and clever in places — the opening, featuring pitch-perfect cameos from (newly minted Oscar nominee!) Stephanie Hsu and Ronnie Chieng, not-so-subtly calls a certain 2018 Asian-centered blockbuster to mind. Ben bemoans the state of art that could allow such capitalist fantasies to be the pinnacle of Asian representation in cinema; Miko points out that he hasn’t taken any big creative swings himself, prompting Ben to immediately bite back with utter defensiveness. It’s a cycle he gets himself into almost constantly throughout the film, even with his best friend, Alice, a lesbian who often recruits Ben to stand in as a boyfriend at events with her homophobic family.
The local cinema Ben manages is also populated by plenty of colorful characters, including one brought to life by Jacob Batalon, who lands a great bit about the Disney machine and the “new Spider-Man films” (in which he notably appears as Ned). But when Autumn (a great Tavi Gevinson) is hired at the theater, sporting a bleached bob that immediately recalls Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums, everyone just about loses their minds — Ben included.
Fade In: The film lands almost exactly at the hour and a half mark, which feels like the perfect amount of time to spend with these characters: It’s a fun portrayal of the art world overall, with Gevinson’s Autumn dragging Ben to seedy bars and unbearable performance art showcases. He’s disgusted by her ambitious art installation in progress — polaroids of her toilet each morning, organized by color — but he calls it interesting and provocative, because he wants to make out with her.
The thing is, Ben has a complex about being an Asian man primarily attracted to white women — it’s one of Miko’s last straws as their relationship is falling apart. He’s constantly trying (and almost always failing) to defend himself from accusations of being someone who thinks he’ll achieve some sort of social equity by getting a blonde girl to date him, even if he’s the one bringing it up most of the time. Later, Debby Ryan appears as another figure for Ben to swoon over, and it’s not long before he runs into the same problem.
Later, in conversation with Alice’s new girlfriend, Meredith (an always wonderful Sonoya Mizuno), he can’t let the concept of a half-white half-Asian couple go, especially as Miko has moved on with a white man — and not just any white man, but the kind of white man who practices Tai Chi and tries to introduce himself to Ben in Japanese. (Timothy Simons is inspired casting for the role of Leon, a New York photographer who also collects Asian art.)
The Verdict: What’s great about Shortcomings is that the movie itself is the kind of movie Ben would probably really enjoy. It centers Asian-American voices across a spectrum of sexualities and walks of life, and it doesn’t tie up its threads neatly in a bow, but the characters who do get relatively happy endings aren’t rooted in superficial depictions of success. It’s a little weird, and a bit of a swing, off-center enough to feel like it’s still breaking new ground without craving mainstream approval. In short: Exactly the kind of movie its protagonist would dream of making.
Shortcomings might have felt like more standard Sundance fare — an inoffensive slice-of-life portrait with an imperfect lead — were it not for its self-awareness and vibrant characters. While worth watching for Justin H. Min’s performance alone, Shortcomings will leave the viewer excited to see what Randall Park might do next as a director.
Where to Watch: Shortcomings premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.