Sundance 2023: Randall Park’s Funny & Honest Film ‘Shortcomings’
by Alex Billington
January 28, 2023
Another of my favorite discoveries at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is a comedy called Shortcomings, based on the graphic novel of the same name. The film is also the feature directorial debut of actor Randall Park, best known as the guy from “Fresh Off the Boat”, Always Be My Maybe, and many other supporting character roles (he’s also in the MCU). It took him years to finally get this film made, working from a script by another writer, Adrian Tomine, and it’s worth the wait. I loved Shortcomings. The film has some of the most “real” characters and dialogue in any of 40+ films I’ve seen at Sundance this year, following a guy from Berkeley questioning his romantic choices while making even more irrational choices. It’s an exploration of what it’s like being a young Asian-American male in American society, and it’s powerfully honest. I found it incredibly bold for a filmmaker + writer to make a film about their own experiences, and make these flawed characters realistic. No one is perfect; yes everyone gets angry, that’s normal. Realizing that is empowering.
Written by the Asian-American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, adapting his own graphic novel from 2012, the film introduces us to a young man named Ben Tanaka – played by Justin H. Min. He’s a rather grumpy guy living in Berkley, California, not doing much with his life besides working at an old art house theater trying to write a screenplay that he can never seem to write. This film reminds me of one of my all-time Sundance favorites, 500 Days of Summer, which is about a guy realizing the woman he dated is not actually the right person for him. But he has to go through that, he has to learn from his mistakes, and we as the audience get to follow his awkward yet humbling “coming-of-age” love story. Shortcomings is similar in many ways, also following a guy who needs to do some growing up, but he will only do so by going through these experiences depicted in the film. He has some mean outbursts, he gets upset easily, but mostly he’s just honest. He isn’t fake or performative, he has flaws (like everyone). I found that refreshing to see in a film. The film is meant to take us on this absurd journey with him to see what it’s like to grow and experience the messiness of life.
Shortcomings also features an impressive supporting cast: with Ally Maki as his girlfriend Miko, Sherry Cola as his lesbian best friend Alice, Jacob Batalon and Scott Seiss as goofy co-workers at his art house theater, Tavi Gevinson and Debby Ryan as two other white women Ben tries to date, and the illustrious Sonoya Mizuno as one of Alice’s new girlfriends. Best of all, after years of working in front of the camera, it would seem that Randall Park is also incredibly talented behind the camera, too. His direction in this film is superb, handing all of the unique characters, the emotions, the realism, the honesty, the dishonesty, the messiness, the quirkiness, and the humor with grace. Not to mention some slick cinematography that felt natural and never showy. During a film festival, I watch so many films that it’s pretty easy to tell which ones aren’t that well made. This one grabbed me right from the start, with a hilarious scene confronting the bogus representation in Crazy Rich Asians with an outburst of only-he-could-say-this truthfulness that set the bar for what was to come. The rest of it is as much of a joy to watch and I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
I’ve read some other takes on this film saying that you can’t root for the main character Ben at all, or that he is a complete asshole, irredeemable and unwatchable. Huh. I find these kind of reactions a bit strange, and I disagree with this interpretation. Everyone else in the film was even worse than he was (because these are spoilers I won’t explain it all here), they just covered it up with nice-isms. Which, in all honesty, bothered me more than Ben’s occasional outbursts. Everyone needs to learn to move on and find happiness, I think that’s the point of this film. Yeah sure he’s sometimes a bit harsh but those are just his realistic flaws, thanks to a script that recognizes the beauty of just letting people be real people, imperfections and all. They’re far from perfect, everyone has some issues in this, and the film is kind of about realizing that and letting it all go and trying to find more happiness. That’s the greatest challenge, that’s the path everyone is on anyway. I really liked following this story and hearing these characters have authentic conversations about both the bullshit and the truths of life and love. Not everyone will appreciate this, but I hope many more do enjoy it.