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‘Shortcomings’ Is Critical of Positive Representation, Almost to A Fault


film still of shortcomings
Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics.

Randall Park’s directorial debut Shortcomings is an adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel of the same name. Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, and Ally Maki, the film follows the trajectory of an Asian-American man navigating career and romantic failures in sunny California. Ben (Min) is a bitter, sarcastic, and insufferable cinephile whose girlfriend Miko (Maki) departs for a months-long internship in New York, leaving him to his own devices. His queer and quippy best friend Alice (Cola) helpfully indulges him in some of his worst qualities while trying to give him some actual life advice along the way. Shortcomings also features Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Jacob Batalon, Stephanie Hsu, and Ronny Chieng.


This film is not afraid to pull its punches, drawing upon Ben’s worst impulses and overly critical thoughts regarding subjects like Asian representation in Western media or mixed-race relationships. These topics instigate the kinds of debates that people in the Asian community quietly have behind closed doors or think silently to themselves for fear of getting cancelled, yet the story pulls them to the forefront of Ben’s characterization.


At first, it feels like the movie is trying to let these arguments breathe on their own merit, but it soon becomes clear that Ben is just wrong and stubborn. His tirades about hating the movie’s stand-in for Crazy Rich Asians (too mainstream for him), his hypocritical analysis of white men dating Asian women (while he pursues dating white women himself), and his glaring personality flaws — a terrible short-temper, irritatingly mocking tone, and self-centredness coming from a place of intense self-loathing — build toward his virtual unbearableness.


While Ben’s judgy, mean-spirited, combative energy makes him deeply unpleasant to be around, Min’s moments of charm, especially in his lighter scenes with Cola or the scenes where he is simply alone and depressed, are just enough to keep him empathetic. And it helps that he gets taken down a peg by some fiery and intelligent women. Honestly, viewers will want to applaud every woman who gets fed up with him and walks away. Wrangling the political themes into the personal using such an unlikeable character as the central study is a feat, and while the movie struggles to make it work a hundred percent of the time, it doesn’t quite fail either.


There are some jokes and references throughout the beginning of Shortcomings that are a little too heavy handed and on the nose (Batalon’s character mentions liking the new Spider-Man film) and some art direction choices that are a little too cutesy (namely those pastel-coloured chapter breaks), which feel a little bit like there were a few too many ideas floating around, but the film eventually finds its footing and sticks the ending of this anti-rom-com.


By allowing Asian characters to behave badly and be surrounded by other Asians (a trend that we hope doesn’t end, especially as it brings us phenomenally sharp, funny, and entertaining content like Beef and Joy Ride), we can finally assess the shortcomings of media without making it just about race (or nationality or gender or sexuality). And you can’t fault this film for that.

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