What a nice little thrill it is to discover a small gem at a film festival. Whenever it happens, it feels like a secret, just in cinematic form. This year, I found one in Shortcomings, an equally funny and heartwarming character study/coming of age story. Not only is it a fresh take on the aimless guy who needs to grow up tale, it does so with lots on its mind about racial and sexual politics. A highlight of the Sundance Film Festival this year, it’s a real winner.
Shortcomings plays just like a movie version of the type of character based novels I consistently adore so much. So, narratively I’m very much the target audience. Plus, because it’s centered on a largely Asian cast, the ability to feel both very specific and also universal is yet another feather in this movie’s proverbial cap.
Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min) is a manager of a small independent movie theater. He passes his time passing judgment, whether it’s the Bay Area over New York, indie movies over mainstream entertainment, and more. Whether it’s with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), who’s growing apart from him, or with his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola), cynicism is the name of the game. He’s in a bit of a rut, but life is about to force him out of it.
When Miko takes an internship in New York City, they find themselves on a break. Ben uses the opportunity to halfheartedly pursue one of his theater employees in Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), as well as a girl Alice knows in Sasha (Debby Ryan), all the while fretting about is Miko has found something new. As others begin to find their places in the world, Ben starts to realize that they’re leaving him behind.
Following up After Yang, Justin H. Min delivers a low-key turn that’s just as good, but completely different. He’s the perfect jerk with a good heart, forced to grow up. Sherry Cola is a riot, while Ally Maki is a dry maturity next to Min’s well-realized arrested development. In addition to Tavi Gevinson and Debby Ryan, supporting players in Shortcomings include Jacob Batalon, Sonoya Mizuno, and Timothy Simons, among others.
Actor turned filmmaker Randall Park directs here from a script by Adrian Tomine, adapting his own source material. Park’s direction is character focused and no-frills, but he keeps things moving, all while having a hang out vibe to his work. Tomine’s screenplay is perceptive and sharp, while also being funny as well. Park and Tomine raise genuine questions about race and sex, but never forget to entertain at the same time.
Shortcomings is one of my very favorite Sundance 2023 titles. It’s small and not too much of a visual work, but the performances and personality on display are more than on point. This has a definite chance to be a crossover success, too, so Park City may well not be the end of the line for this charming work.