Director Jason Karman takes intense care with his protagonist Jake (Cardi Wong) in Golden Delicious. As Jake makes mistakes, runs from himself, and works to tease out an identity from the shifting and insecure personas he and his peers have floating about themselves, Karman has his lens watch without judgement, with immense care and patience. It’s a kind of empathetic and nurturing gaze that envelops us as viewers, a way of seeing that we carry into our own lives — leaving us feeling warm after the credits have rolled. We wonder how we, too, might be this tender with ourselves and those we love. With Golden Delicious, Karman delivers a nuanced and poignant story within a familiar framework, the coming-of-age tale, but.n so doing, he reinvigorates the genre, ultimately pointing to his talent as a director able to tell fulsome tales that feel like a life lived.
The film, based on a screenplay by Gorrman Lee, begins with Jake at that exciting moment in life when everything seems as much possible as it does impossible: his final year of high school. His girlfriend since middle school, Valerie (Parmiss Sehat), thinks the two of them should have sex for the first time. His father George (Ryan Mah) thinks Jake should try out for a more meaningful role on the basketball team than the coach’s assistant, so he works with Jake most days to ensure his skills are refined enough to earn him a spot. But when George, who missed out on the opportunity to pursue basketball professionally due to an injury, hurts Jake’s hand, and a handsome boy, Aleks (Chris Carson), moves in across the street, various previously-staid aspects of Jake’s life begin to fall apart. Finding burgeoning feelings of attraction toward Aleks along with a concurrent, enthusiastic disinterest in basketball, Jake begins questioning whether the things he wants in life stem from his own desires, or from a desire to please those around him.
Golden Delicious unfurls slowly, never rushing through any moment. And while at times this meandering may seem a liability in the sense that the narrative loses its pace when it pursues closure for ancillary characters, it, for the most part, serves to lend to the film’s naturalistic depiction of people in all their misgivings, uncertainties, and fallibilities.
Karman allows for Jake to pursue facets of himself with the hesitancy of youth. Jake toys with becoming who Valerie wants him to be — a caring and attentive boyfriend — when he feels that this is what a boy ought to do. Jake tries out basketball, too, for his father, but doesn’t enjoy it as much as he enjoys photographing the world about him. Through unwavering attention, Karman shows Jake’s febrile, still-developing notion not only of himself, but also of masculinity, and what it means to be gay in a second-generation immigrant family, what it means to be authentic in the world. In other words, Karman allows for Jake to experiment with identity, to learn for himself that heterosexuality isn’t for him — Golden Delicious, as a film, understands that no one else has the right to tell us who we are but ourselves, and this is an understanding that it strives to nudge Jake towards, too.
The patience of this film is its masterwork. It’s an unflinching and sympathetic patience, like the warm gaze of Jake’s grandmother’s portrait in his family’s kitchen. Jake’s sister, Janet (Claudia Kai), an aspiring chef, spends much time in this kitchen, and works diligently to master her grandmother’s lost noodle recipe. Within the Wong kitchen, Janet experiments: every night, she creates a version of the noodles, feeding it to her family, and asking them what’s missing. Every night, it seems that Janet’s recipe is lacking in something, but she never seems to be disheartened by any of her failed attempts, rather using her errors as fuel to better herself.
Trial and error is the lifeblood of growth, Golden Delicious seems to say. As the film meanders on, Jake feels a growing unhappiness within himself, for himself, as he tries on being a good boyfriend for Valerie, tries on being the good son according to George. Jake doesn’t immediately see that not wanting to be the person other people (people he loves most in the world) want him to be isn’t a moral failing, as the world might have him believe, but rather a hurdle on the path to growth. This complex and prickly understanding is what all coming-of-age tales seem to build toward with their stories, but what makes Golden Delicious unique — what makes Karman’s vision unique — is its application of an often-seen trajectory of growth to seldom-seen characters.
Jake is from an immigrant family and is learning of his queer identity, and Karman shows every facet of Jake and his family as they simply exist, moving through their trials and tribulations. This is why the patience at the heart of Golden Delicious is so important. A character like Jake hasn’t traditionally received the time to come of age, the luxury of screen time to try on various personae without judgement, in the way he does here. With Golden Delicious, its nuanced and delicate portrayal of what it looks like for a gay, Asian teen to come of age, Karman showcases his trailblazing talent. This is a gem of a movie that presents us with fleshed out characters in an abundant world, one that will leave you feeling as though you have known Jake Wong and his family all your life; as though you, too, have a ways to grow yet.
Golden Delicious screened at the 2022 Reelworld Film Festival.