“Shortcomings” (2023) – “A fault or failure to meet a certain standard, typically in a person’s character, a plan, or a system.” – the definition of a shortcoming, according to Google
Meet Ben (Justin H. Min).
He has several shortcomings. He’s irritable, cynical, apathetic, and a bit depressed. Ben loves movies and studied film in college for a couple of years but didn’t graduate. He’s not a filmmaker, but this pessimist spins his life story near his dearest passion by managing an independent Berkeley movie theatre.
Unfortunately, he finds more fervor in watching arthouse flicks for hours on end than spending quality time with his girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki), a woman looking for support, warmth, and romance. However, after six years, the only sparks between Ben and Miko these days are arguments over his laptop browser history.
Their relationship appears to be history.
Well, at least temporarily, as Miko lands a 3-month internship in New York City and needs to leave the East Bay. Our unhappy couple is officially on a break in director Randall Park’s “Shortcomings”, a relationship comedy that’s long on witty banter and engaging supporting players and anchored by two winning performances from Min and Sherry Cola, who plays Ben’s best friend, Alice.
Park owns an enormous list of film and television acting credits, 172 and counting, and has dabbled in directing. This movie – based on Adrian Tomine’s 2007 graphic novel, a “work that fully deals with themes of being a young Asian American male in American society” – is his second feature.
Tomine also penned the screenplay, and in a “The Hollywood Reporter” interview at 2023 Sundance, Park says, “I found out that this script, based on this book that I loved for so long, was looking for directors, so I got to throw my hat in the ring.”
Park rings into Ben and Miko’s tired relationship from the get-go, as we first see our troubled hero dismiss a big commercial movie at the East Bay Asian American Film Festival, and she embraces the flick’s values based on its entertainment worth and on-screen representation. This couple sees the world through different lenses.
Miko has no complaints about her current economic circumstances, backed by her father’s trust fund. At the same time, Ben’s schooling failings, limited financial status, and the system at large drive his angst. He’s a curmudgeon, but his complaints are not without merit, so Ben is a sympathetic figure, and credit Min, who appears in nearly every frame during the 87-minute runtime, for delivering this balance. Ben offers valid points, so we’re willing to listen and are occupied with his rantings, not unlike the efforts of Dante (Brian O’Halloran) from “Clerks” (1994) or Rob (John Cusack) from “High Fidelity” (2000).
Ben distracts himself from his stormy days by wandering into the dating scene, which is a bit like stepping on the Autobahn without a crosswalk, and his new interests (Debby Ryan and Tavi Gevinson) aren’t quite ready for commitment or attractions to 9-to-5 office life and stamp collections. It’s the Wild West in the East Bay or anywhere else where single 20 or 30-somethings explore the beautiful madness of it all.
Thankfully, Alice frequently pops into Park’s camera frame with oodles of illuminating advice and a rational voice for Ben as his BFF and de facto counselor. Cola’s welcome comedic presence brings lively chemistry between Alice and Ben (and a needed cinematic balance against Ben’s negativity) as these besties commiserate – at breakfast places, bagel shops, and wherever else – over their winding navigations in the urbanite dating world. They both drive on confusing courting maps, and even though Alice offers sound advice, she doesn’t have all the answers. She makes mistakes and hides her sexuality from her traditional, religious parents, as Ben awkwardly acts as her boyfriend for a planned appearance.
He not only pretends to be her partner but Korean as well. Race is a recurring topic in “Shortcomings” in the forms of both authentic consternation and deliberate comical sequences, including a hilarious scene where an unlikely fellow, Leon (Timothy Simons), speaks fluent Japanese.
Simons, Cola, Maki, Ryan, Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, and Jacob Batalon offer effective on-screen steps – forward or backward – on Ben’s journey, as our flawed lead will hopefully find his way around relationship and professional roadblocks and out of the cul-de-sacs of personal trepidation. No question, we empathize with Ben because we all have our shortcomings.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Directed by: Randall Park
Written by: Adrian Tomine
Starring: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonoya Mizuno, Timothy Simons, and Jacob Batalon
Runtime: 87 minutes
Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics