Shortcomings is the feature-directorial debut by comedian Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat), and I’m pretty sure the last thing Park would want the film to be praised for is diversity. Nevertheless, such a buzzword alongside a solid script and strong cast is just one of several aspects that makes this ode to 90s indie flicks work. Starring a host of relatively unknown actors, set both on the West and East coasts; in all honestly, the only weak spot is the title. Yes, Shortcomings makes sense to the main character’s journey, but I had to look up the name before writing this review, so…
When Ben’s (Justin H. Mins) girlfriend of five years decides to move to the Big Apple for a three-month “dream internship,” the twenty-something hipster movie theater manager finds himself free to date whomever but imprisoned by his own insecurities. Is he really as shallow as best pal Alice (Sherry Cola) describes, a Japanese American straight dude whose type is essentially blonde white women? I mean, his porn history would certainly confirm this. But Ben fully denies it.
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From the low-paying jobs, the eclectic attire, and most of all, Ben’s own need to over-explain and just talk and talk and talk, director Park (working with a script from Adriane Tomine, adapted from her own graphic novel) has fashioned a good blend of Gen X aesthetics plopped into the Gen Z’s of 2023. If Kevin Smith or Richard Linklater made films about today’s out-of-college adults, it would be pretty close to Shortcomings. Park, a GenXer, clearly loves Independents like Clerks, She’s Gotta Have It, and the perfectly-titled Slacker.
As yours truly is a GenXer, these kinds of movies are pretty much catnip. Also, while I’d heard how “seeing someone who looks like you” on the big screen can have positive effects, I’d never really experienced such a feeling until now. As such, I’m sure how attached one is to characters that are predominantly Asian and, more importantly, relatable (ahem… not Crazy Rich Asians) means mileage may vary with each viewer. Still, that is the key to any successful story, no? Employ a ton of specificity but also be entirely relatable to anyone regardless of gender, race, etc. Seeing oneself in a film or show isn’t merely “they look like me” but “they act like me.”
Through the course of a brisk 90 minutes, Ben, Alice, and Ben’s sort of ex, Miko (Ally Maki), are all trying to figure themselves out. Ben is our main POV, but Park’s talent with his cast means the story doesn’t feel too biased to any one person. If anything, Ben can be pretty toxic. It’s a credit to Min that we stick with Ben even if we don’t entirely root for him. Ben really can’t get out of his way. When he fails, he fails spectacularly. A break-up with a charming but complicated woman, Sasha (Debby Ryan), has flashes of the opening of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Sasha assures Ben Tanaka (like Mark Zuckerberg before him) that it’s not about his race or about being a nerd — nope, it’s really just him. Is that better or worse for an ex-lover to state?
The smaller roles are well cast too. Alongside Ryan as one of Ben’s relationship foils, Tavi Gevinson is highly memorable as a spontaneous, avant-garde performance artist. Both Gevinson and Ryan have vulnerabilities as well as external strengths of character. Spider-Man‘s own Ned (Jacob Batalon) has a fun turn as one of Ben’s theater employees. Veep’s Timothy Simons (who showed up last month with Cola in Joy Ride) is hilarious as a very tall Caucasian guy who may or may not have a certain fetish for Asian culture.
Shortcomings is by no means perfect. Even at ninety minutes, the pacing can slack a tad in the middle act transition to the East Coast. Like the films Park grew up with, there’s a tendency to dive into deeper conversations like gentrification, privilege, and toxicity but not quite be all in. Still, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s not much different from those beloved 90s movies. The lens of indie can sometimes afford audiences to be easier on Clerks than, say, Reality Bites. (For the record, I’m on team Reality Bites.) Sometimes coming up… ahem… short is totally cool since other parts (performances, relevance) are so rewarding.