Synopsis: The story of Ben Tanaka, a confused, obsessive Japanese American male in his late twenties, and his cross-country search for contentment (or at least the perfect girl).
Stars: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Timothy Simons
Director: Randall Park
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I love a good coming-of-age movie as much as the next critic that grew up in the hazy glow of the ‘80s, but I think it’s often a mistake to assume they can only focus on the younger generation. Yes, there’s an instant relatability for adult filmgoers who like to look back with movies that can capture a specific time and place with a particular patina; it’s what has led to this nostalgia boom of late that I’ve fully embraced. However, there are a growing number of films geared toward a different type of maturing that happens long after we’ve said goodbye to high school and college and are ready to take the next step toward what might be waiting on the other side of unexpectedness.
That’s my biggest takeaway from Shortcomings, Randall Park’s film version of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel originally published as a series of serialized stories between 2004 and 2007. At the start of the film, most of Tomine’s characters are at a standstill in their young adulthood, tapping their toes as they wait for the next Big Thing to happen in life. Without realizing it, they neglect that these prime days of pre-adulthood are the perfect time to make the big mistakes they fear and take the risks they appear to be opposed to.
Maybe that’s why Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang) is so unhappy at the film’s start. Living in Berkeley, CA, and going through the motions as a manager of an art-house theater that’s seen better days, he feels stuck in his current situation at work and home. His girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki, Home Sweet Home Alone) is far more ambitious than her partner in the long-term goals department, and that divide is creating an obvious wedge between the two. With Ben and Miko also disagreeing on what their Asian-American culture means to them and how representation is manifested, it sets into motion a separation that intends to give the two convenient bi-coastal space to reconsider their relationship but winds up creating a disastrous downward spiral for Ben.
After Miko accepts a career opportunity in NYC and leaves for several months, the breathing room he thought he needed turns into second-guessing jealousy…and this is after he has affairs with two vibrant women (Tavi Gevinson, Enough Said and Debby Ryan, Night Teeth) in short order. Convinced he needs to either win Miko back or get to the bottom of why they can’t work, Ben ventures to NYC for a visit with longtime friend Alice (Sherry Cola, Turning Red) and some detective work. While Alice and her girlfriend Meredith offer a safe space to contemplate his recent choices before confronting Miko, Ben cannot fully see the scale of his actions until it is too late.
In bringing these characters to life on the big screen, first-time director Park (Valley Girl) and Tomine have taken flat images already leaping off the page and transitioned them into the flawed three-dimensional figures they were begging to become. Tomine’s characters are emotional and quirky but richly human and get stuck in the same life complications that many will be able to relate with. In turn, Park was able to take that detailed outline and successfully piece together a cast that could run with the material.
Min is appropriately aggravating when it counts but doesn’t lose the leading man charm that makes you want to root for him ultimately coming out on top. You also want to cheer for Maki, even if her character is often just as much in the wrong as Min’s. After July’s Joy Ride, Cola is fizzing (har har) and proving not only to be an excellent comic sidekick but also to have impressive chops in the non-comedic arena. Though I understand it’s not her story or Tomine’s perspective, I would have loved to see more of her side of things get fleshed out. Maybe a spin-off?
Shortcomings starts strong and maintains a zippy energy for the first half but begins to dip as it nears the sixty-minute mark. Coincidentally, it’s when the story goes into more dramatic territory, and our characters show a bit of their darker side. Naturally, Park pumps the brakes a bit. While it can’t regain that same spring in its step from its opening stretch, it never fully stumbles out of favor. Well-etched performances and a creatively infused screenplay go a long way in keeping Shortcomings headed in the right direction.