Every culture wants to see itself reflected positively and accurately onscreen, but that doesn’t always happen. In its opening moments, Shortcomings parodies the way in which Asians are typically portrayed in cinema before zooming out to reveal that it’s all part of a film ripe for mocking by our pretentious protagonist Ben (Justin H. Min), who has more than a few things to say about it and can’t stop himself from saying them. What ensues is a highly entertaining comedy about someone who believes that he’s the good guy even though there’s really not much to like about him at all.
Ben lives in Berkeley and manages a local movie theater. When his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) announces that she’s moving to New York for a few months to pursue an internship and that they should take a break, Ben seizes an opportunity to pursue something he’s always wanted — a relationship with a blonde white girl, the kind of woman that the media has supposedly brainwashed him to want. Fortunately, he meets frequently with his sarcastic best friend Alice (Sherry Cola), who reminds him at every turn that he’s not immune to stereotypes either, even if they’re not the ones typically ascribed to Asian men.
Fresh off the cancellation of his mediocre Netflix sitcom Blockbuster, Director Randall Park (who cameos here as a waiter) makes an impressive directorial debut with a comedy about expectations and reality. Ben is the definition of judgmental, yet he reacts harshly when he’s criticized by anyone else for his legitimate faults. The wise Alice puts it perfectly when she shuts him down at one point, telling him that while she may be a hypocrite, that doesn’t mean she isn’t right, as she’s well aware of who Ben is and how predictable he has become.
Based on the book by Adrian Tomine, who also adapted his own novel, Shortcomings is the kind of film that sends up typical conventions and in the process manages to be fresh and original rather than a standard romantic comedy, or even one where romance is the primary goal. It’s a rare example of a movie where all the supporting characters are layered and extraordinarily defined. As two women who really fit Ben’s type, Tavi Gevinson and Debby Ryan exhibit their own memorable personalities and aren’t content to be shoehorned into his definition of who they should be. Alice’s New York girlfriend, Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), is initially warm and welcoming, but later on, she has no problem calling Ben out on his bullshit when he once again sees himself as superior to those around him.
The true star of the show here is Cola, who excels at delivering Tomine’s sharp dialogue, firing off each quip with flair and certainty. She’s a fun contrast to Ben, who is prone to long lectures that he’d like to think are just examples of him expressing his opinion. While it can be hard to like Ben and his selfishness may make the film inaccessible for some, there are indeed people like him who do exist, so confident in their own arrogance that they consider others to be against them if they don’t simply nod along and affirm.
Shortcomings is divided up into sections, which take their names from a specific line uttered shortly after a title card. It’s an entertaining way to enhance the story, one that is by no means groundbreaking or extraordinarily creative but still feels that way because of its naturally smooth rhythm and flow. Sure, there is some drama to be found, but this is good, light fare that doesn’t ask how its characters can afford their lavish accommodations in two of the most expensive American cities and just meets them where they are. It’s a joyous and funny film that makes great use of its ensemble and delivers on its promise to create a different kind of project about Asian Americans.
Shortcomings premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it will screen twice more this week.