“Shortcomings” is director Randall Park’s disarming romantic dramedy that features that all too rare on-screen couple — the straight man and his lesbian best friend.
Directed by Park and written by Adrian Tomine (based on his graphic novel), the film opens with Ben (Justin H. Min) fighting with Miko (Ally Maki), his girlfriend of six years, over an Asian American romcom in the “Crazy Rich Asians” mold that she programmed for a film festival. The spat is indicative of larger issues in their relationship and things seem to fester in every exchange they have.
Ben is a frustrated would-be filmmaker who manages a cinema in Berkeley. He is broke and flailing in life, expressing his “snobbish tastes” about film and representation to make himself feel self-important, rather than invisible. But his remarks show his real flaw — an inability to read the room. He is blind to Miko’s needs and desires, preferring to watch his DVDs than spend time with her in bed. Ben is also ignorant of others, interrupting his bestie Alice’s (Sherry Cola) flirting with a waitress in a restaurant by repeatedly asking for ketchup.
Ben’s shortcoming forms much of the cringy humor in the film, and Min’s guilelessness is a key to his comic performance. His self-loathing is weaponized with sarcasm, which only Alice seems to appreciate — or tolerate. Park mines considerable laughs from Ben’s behavior, which involves him trying to redirect his faults onto others. When Miko calls Ben on the fact that his type is white women (she finds porn on his computer), he does not just get defensive, but makes Miko feel like a temporary girlfriend until the right blonde comes along.
The cracks in Ben and Miko’s relationship break open when she moves across the country for an internship in New York. Ben sees this “time out” in the relationship as a chance to act on his desire for Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), a perky new blonde ticket seller and performance artist at the cinema.
Alice — who has much better luck with women — advises Ben about dating and relationships, but he does not really listen to her. He should. Sherry Cola gets all the best lines in the film, and she steals every scene with her deadpanning. (Sample quip: “Just because I’m hypocritical, doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”)
The film is at its most vibrant and witty as Ben and Alice chat, trade insults, and bond over their hapless lives. They would be perfect for each other if only they were sexually compatible. Alice even asks Ben to pose as her boyfriend for a family gathering because her traditional parents would rather see her with a Japanese guy than a Korean girl. Alice’s inability to be out to her family shows some of her own issues with unhappiness, which goes deeper as she struggles to live up to the model minority myth her parents value.
When Alice takes Ben to a lesbian party, he meets Sasha (Debby Ryan), and they start dating. But Alice warns Ben that Sasha, who is rebounding from a breakup with her girlfriend Pilar, is a “dabbler” (i.e., not serious about men.) Ben, however, is blinded by the fact that he can date a white woman since Miko is ghosting him.
“Shortcomings” is both smart and funny in its commentaries on how race and sexuality can be factors in attraction. This also holds true for breakups, as when Sasha tells Ben she can blame the dissolution of their relationship on (his) race and (her) sexuality — but it really is because of him.
When an incident with a fellow student gets Alice kicked out of grad school, she heads to New York to clear her head. She also meets and moves in with Meredith (Sonoya Mizuno), a chic new girlfriend who may be “the one.” Meanwhile, Ben’s life in California implodes — his cinema closes — so he takes the opportunity to visit Alice and hopefully reconnect with Miko. (Because “stalking” is such an ugly word.)
When he and Alice make some startling discoveries, Ben spirals deeper into despair. Even at his nadir, Ben is oblivious to others, and starts fighting with Meredith, who rightfully punctures his fragile male ego. Another honest, emotional moment has Ben confronting Miko, where they discuss their relationship status, and some hard truths are expressed. As Ben is forced to grow up and move on, the film slyly mocks him about adulting, but if Alice can do it, surely, Ben can, too.
“Shortcomings” finds its humor in Ben and Alice’s suffering and cynicism. Most of the laughs are generated by Min and Cola’s chemistry, and there are some smart jokes about art, movies, and relationships. While Ben may lack some warmth and kindness, this amusing film mostly charms.
“Shortcomings” | Directed by Randall Park | Opening August 4 at the Alamo 28 Liberty, AMC Empire 25, Angelika Film Center, Lincoln Square 13, and Regal Essex Crossing 14 | Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics