Randall Park is just the latest in a long line of actors to be reductively summarised by their appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but a little knowledge of that comic book world wouldn’t go amiss when picking up on a reference or two in Park’s feature directorial debut. SHORTCOMINGS is a title that almost invites criticism, but this easygoing look at relationship difficulties has more strengths than weaknesses.
Hearing that SHORTCOMINGS is also adapted from a comic might set unfair expectations, but Adrian Tomine adapts his own graphic novel, originally published across three issues of the Optic Nerve series. (It’s the second time Tomine’s works have been adapted for the screen, Jacques Audiard also borrowing three of them for PARIS, 13TH DISTRICT.) It draws on Tomine’s own experience of attempting to navigate society as a young Asian-American man and shows off some mildly disastrous attempts to find a successful relationship; hopefully, for Tomine’s sake, not too many of them are autobiographical.
In San Francisco, Ben (Justin H. Min) is in a fractious relationship with Miko (Ally Maki), exemplified by their attendance at a festival film screening she’s organised. The event culminates with a fairytale happy ending and a standing ovation from everyone in the audience except Ben. Miko sees the harmless romance, while Ben focuses on the representation opportunities for future filmmakers and dismisses his partner out of hand. She calls him out for his fascination with blonde white women and worries about their future.
When Miko is offered an internship on the other side of the country, it feels like an opportunity for them to explore a bit of time on their own. Quicker than you can say “we were on a break, ” Ben explores other opportunities. He employs Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) at the movie theatre where he’s a manager but then ends up enduring an excruciating evening at a performance art event she is headlining, unable to feign any more interest in that than he was in Miko’s interests. Through all of his unsuccessful life choices, the one person seemingly willing to tolerate his outpourings is his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola), a woman without any kind of social filter who might just be the person Ben needs; at least, until she also decides to relocate to New York.
Ben and Alice are there for each other through thick and thin, including her attempts to pass him off as a boyfriend to her Korean parents, who she doesn’t feel are ready to learn she’s a lesbian. She’s loud, proud, and the perfect foil to his self-absorbed nonsense. Min and Cola have an easy chemistry, believable as best friends who probably ended up together because nobody else would take on all of their challenges, with Cola bringing some deadpan sass to follow up her charismatic performance in Joy Ride earlier this year.
“Park’s film has other commonalities with the output of Kevin Smith other than slack-jawed, nerdy bystanders, including a more televisual look and some slightly blocky editing. But tonally, SHORTCOMINGS feels closer to something between mumblecore and Apatow, a frankness of our human capacity to screw things up continually.”
But Min is the real marvel here (if you’ll pardon the pun). Ben’s career at the movie theatre – which includes a pair of Jay and Silent Bob-esque ushers, one of whom is Jacob Batalon (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) in a knowing cameo – is on as swift a downward trajectory as his love life. Yet, Min fills Ben with charisma and charm and a passion which, while usually heavily misplaced, keeps him completely engaging. We’re rooting for Ben to find his moment of redemption, his awakening of the soul, even though another catastrophic life choice makes that seemingly more unlikely.
Tomine’s script has spike and sparkle, and Ben’s intransigence and obstinacy mean that SHORTCOMINGS was never likely to follow conventional romcom trajectories. Park’s film has other commonalities with the output of Kevin Smith other than slack-jawed, nerdy bystanders, including a more televisual look and some slightly blocky editing. But tonally, SHORTCOMINGS feels closer to something between mumblecore and Apatow, a frankness of our human capacity to screw things up continually.
As Ben follows the two most significant women in his life to the Big Apple, Park and Tomine push him even closer to disaster. He’s self-aware enough to see the worst possible life choices he could make but desperate enough to make them anyway. There are resolutions of sorts in the final act, but also an unshakeable feeling that Ben isn’t irrevocably changed by his experience.
SHORTCOMINGS may not have the effect that Ben hopes its Stephanie Hsu-starring film-within-a-film will have of offering better representation, but it is good to see both Asian-American leads in a film about relationships which doesn’t default to feelgood safety, and also to have characters with all of their faults and failings that don’t undergo magic transformations.