Someday, Randall Park is going to make a great movie. You can feel his smarts clearly as you watch Shortcomings, his directorial debut which premiered in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Alas, today is not that day. It’s a film that feels fueled by good ideas and noble intentions that’s on the brink of something special but just can’t pull it together cohesively.
Shortcomings details how a young self-centered underemployed wannabe intellectual handles the aftermath of a breakup. It’s easy to imagine a world where Justin H. Min would be typecast into a gear similar to his (deservedly!) well received work in After Yang: a decade or two spent as a quiet, nerdy, booksmart, nice guy – a stereotype. Thankfully, we’re not in that world. Devoid of introspection, Min’s Ben makes for a captivating, albeit frustrating, hang. As written, the character is about three degrees too much of an asshole to credibly buy into the viability of his interpersonal relationships. As performed, Min finds a prickly humanity with just enough of a wink beneath the nastiness that you can understand why someone would choose to buy his bullshit. His arc is, of course, fairly predictable but Min makes the most of it – his is a talent to watch.
Where Park’s storytelling shines most obviously is when the film grapples with the specific cultural moment for Asian Americans. Set in the wake of the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Ben – the sort of Criterion connoisseur who tells a friend he’s watching “Ohayō” while Ozu’s Good Morning plays on the TV – prickishly dismisses the simple value of representation. To him, the escape of something like Shang-Chi offends the senses and leans into token stereotypes of Asians. It’s hard not to see a thread of meta-commentary to Park’s own time on the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat (not coincidentally he co-starred with Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu) and the sort of pretentious criticisms Park himself must’ve faced. As one character points out, the success of a Crazy Rich Asians will make it easier for other Asian filmmakers to find financing in Hollywood – the metacommentary shines.
All the actors are strong, even when they appear to struggle with the screenplay. Sherry Cola (Turning Red), playing Min’s lesbian best friend, seems to find a hint of bemusement in each line reading. Debby Ryan (Horse Girl) damn near steals the film with a puckish sense of “give no fucks” vibrancy in her far-too-small role. The problem is that there’s a certainty rigidity to the filmmaking on display here. Perhaps it is because the film’s screenplay vacillates wildly between smart, introspective relationship commentary and ham-fisted, overwritten barbs. It’s really hard to reconcile the crisp snap of some scenes with the stuttering banality of others. Purposefully, the film is shot in a way that visually echoes 90s American indies. It’s a functional choice, but not an enlivening one. The same is true of the “classic indie” filmmaking style. I’m left with the sad sensation that good scenes feel like they could’ve been great scenes.
All told, Shortcomings feels like the growing pains of a talented, smart filmmaker trying to conquer a new avenue for his talents. I’m certainly buying stock in Randall Park’s future.
Shortcomings premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.