Is Shortcomings’ jackass of a main character the antidote to token representation?

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Coming Soon
3.5 out of 5

Representation is coming along in film. Seeing underrepresented people and communities on screen — any screen — is refreshing, particularly after a century of racialized sidekicks, villains and comic relief.

That said, even today, representation often comes down to slightly more sophisticated token characters (hey there, ethnically diverse player!) or white roles performed by actors of colour with little or no acknowledgement of their ethnicity (a.k.a. the Point Break remake rule).

It’s not like the life experiences of Blacks and Latinos differ in any way or form, right? Um, well, actually…

In most movies where race is a major plot point, it’s dealt with broadly and often for laughs, while steering clear of genuine controversy. Just this year we’ve got Joy Ride, Polite Society, The Blackening and What’s Love Got to Do with It.

There has to be a middle ground between these films and a Spike Lee joint.

Enter Shortcomings, a movie that pushes honest representation further, if not quite as far as one might like.

Shortcomings’ first 10 minutes are searing. The film opens with a scene straight out of Crazy Rich Asians, widely acknowledged as an Asian representation milestone, featuring two actors who know better (Stephanie Hsu and Ronny Chieng). Cut to aspiring filmmaker Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang), who brings the sticky points of the box-office smash: CRA, he says, is basically a capitalist fable repackaging the Asian-American experience for maximum commercial appeal. He’s not wrong.

Ben might be perceptive about contemporary cinema but he’s completely blind when it comes to himself. His long-term relationship is falling apart because he thinks he deserves better (he doesn’t), and he has a “thing” for white girls that comes across as icky. Also, his job as a cinema manager is going nowhere and he blames his lack of success on others’ inability to recognize his raw talent.

In short, Ben is a jerk. He reminds me of half my film-school classmates.

As the story unfolds, events force Ben outside his comfort zone as all his “certainties” inevitably crumble. Turns out nobody can make a living or nurture relationships from just strong opinions and savage wit.

Shortcomings — which is based on the still very relevant graphic novel by alternative comics superstar Adrian Tomine (who also wrote the screenplay) — is directed by Randall Park, a recognizable fixture in films (he has recurring characters in both the MCU and the DCEU). Park might be best known as the patriarch in Fresh Off the Boat, co-starring Constance Wu… of Crazy Rich Asians fame (oh, to be a fly on the wall during the final season).

Park and the charismatic Min keep the audience invested despite Ben’s jackassery. Some of his objectionableness is offset by Alice (Sherry Cola, Joy Ride), his equally acerbic but much more likeable sidekick.

After a while, the film settles into romantic comedy mode — still above average, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the early promise.

Shortcoming looks good, though its visual identity is a bit soft — ironic given the strength of Tomine’s instantly recognizable drawings which, aside from his comics, frequently grace New Yorker covers. And despite a slightly stilted, dialogue-heavy approach, Park has a knack for fully developed characters. All together, it bodes well for his future — and the future of meaningful representation in film. ■