Shortcomings is sly examination of Asian and Caucasian relationships

Courtesy photo by Jon Pack/Sony Pictures Classics
HIYA! Ben (Justin H. Min, left) confronts his ex-girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), and her new boyfriend, Leon (Timothy Simons), in the dramedy Shortcomings, streaming on Netflix.

Randall Park directs this dramedy about a young Asian couple whose relationship is on the rocks. Ben (Justin H. Min) is an insufferable, judgmental, and aggrieved hipster and aspiring filmmaker. His partner, Miko (Ally Maki), is an upbeat, ambitious organizer at an Asian American film festival who’s deeply interested in politics and the Asian American community. He’s dismissive of her passion; she’s tired of his constant faultfinding. His best friend is Alice (Sherry Cola), a promiscuous queer grad student. When Miko leaves for a three-month internship in New York, Ben’s newfound freedom forces him to examine his life and choices. (92 min.)

Glen: Ben is a real dickhead. The film opens with a scene from an Asian-centric film screening at Miko’s film fest, and its feel-good ending disgusts Ben, who doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for the film around Miko’s coworkers. Yes, Ben is witty and “cool,” but it’s clear right from the start that his attitude is undermining his relationship. He’s also got an unexplored fetish for white women, so when Miko leaves for New York, he begins hanging out with his new employee, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who he hired to sell tickets at the Berkeley arthouse theater he manages. She’s a “performance artist,” but more importantly, she’s cute and blond and nothing like Miko. Voilà! The backdrop of a disintegrating relationship and a man in the midst of a personal crisis. It’s funny, entertaining, and sad.

Anna: It turns out that Ben’s life needs more than just a tweak to get in order. He’s got a perpetual case of “the grass is always greener,” and he really is going to have to lose it all to recognize that his failures come from within. Life isn’t happening to you, Ben! It’s happening because of you! Yet even though he’s got some pretty insufferable traits, there still was a part of me rooting for Ben to find his way. It can’t be Miko giving in to keep him comfortable, and it can’t be Alice to keep bailing him out again and again: Ben has to learn to face his crappy demons all on his own. Min plays it well here—not apologetic for his character’s flaws but vulnerable and letting the rough edges show. We see a lot of films about women having to find their way out of the continuous cycle of poor decisions meeting lackluster resolve, but it is nice to watch a dude trip and fall his way through self-improvement for a change.

Glen: I was rooting for him too. Deep down, Ben’s a good person, but somewhere along the way he became jaded. Everyone’s a poser to him because he knows he’s a failed filmmaker and poser himself. After Alice is kicked out of her grad program, she too moves to NYC, and when his theater goes out of business, in a bid to win Miko back, he travels to New York and stays with Alice and her new girlfriend, Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), a Barnard professor. After stalking Miko, he discovers she’s taken up with a fashion designer named Leon (a very funny Timothy Simons), who Ben dismisses as an Asiaphile who’s only interested in Miko for her ancestry. Yes, white-girl-fetishist Ben is that hypocritical. It’s an entertaining look at race relations and self-sabotage. Will Ben grow up? The film leaves it up to the viewer.

Anna: I think that Ben’s ability to see his own flaws is what makes him endearing. After doing his best to blow up Alice and Meredith’s life, he tells Meredith, “I’m sorry that you met me now.” Even he recognizes the lunacy of his current path. The film manages to be tender and funny. Props to Sherry Cola for her brand of sarcastic comedy. This film’s about the one-step-forward-two-steps-back reality of self-improvement.

New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Comment at [email protected].

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