PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L–R) Randall Park, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, and Justin H. Min attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Shortcomings” premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
By Lucy Spicer
You don’t watch a film titled Shortcomings and expect to see the characters at their best. Especially not when there’s a chapter called “ROCK BOTTOM.”
That rock bottom in particular belongs to Ben, the protagonist. And while the people around him may be doing better than he is, they’re not exactly paragons of virtue, either. Hypocrisy, thy name is — well, just about everyone.
If you’re going to have a character hit a roadblock at almost every turn, you’d better give them some witty repartee. And that’s exactly what screenwriter Adrian Tomine has done with Shortcomings, which is based on his graphic novel of the same name and premiered at the Eccles Theatre on Sunday, January 22.
Ben (Justin H. Min) used to have filmmaking aspirations, but he finds himself spending most days either managing a run-down art house movie theater, rewatching Criterion Collection DVDs, or sitting in diners and gabbing with his best friend, a queer grad student named Alice (Sherry Cola). When Ben’s girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), moves to New York City for a coveted Asian American film internship, Ben attempts to indulge his penchant for white women in her absence. But, unfortunately, things just don’t seem to go his way — in his social life, in his professional life, and everywhere in between. His jaded attitude doesn’t help.
“I remember reading the script and being immediately struck by how much I relate to Ben,” Min says at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “I told Randall, as soon as I got the part, ‘I am Ben… before therapy,’” he explains to raucous laughter from the audience. “So thank you so much to my therapist for helping me evolve slightly past the guy you see on screen.”
Randall Park’s directorial debut is simultaneously earthy and sleek, pairing Berkeley flea market and diner scenes with apartments whose trendy interiors appear meticulously curated. The film plays with contrast quite a bit: Los Angeles vs. New York City, dating within one’s culture vs. outside of it, what Ben says vs. what he actually does.
“We wanted it to feel real,” says Tomine in response to a question about his collaboration with Park on the film. “We really talked a lot about just the idea of two people sitting in a diner, eating, and just talking about stuff.”
That authenticity, the reality of everyday life in a movie whose main characters are Asian American — that’s what makes the film extraordinary. “The first time I discovered Adrian’s work was Shortcomings,” recounts Park at the post-premiere discussion. “I opened the book, and I just felt all the feelings. I felt sadness, and I laughed, and I felt anger; I just felt everything. And what blew me away was seeing these Asian American characters kind of just living their everyday lives,” he says. “I hadn’t seen anything like that in any kind of media reflected back at me.”
Cola echoes that sense of wonder about Park’s finished film: “What a reminder that we’re enough. What a reminder that we can just be and just live and have conversations and have opinions and have relationships and be so layered, you know?” she says through tears. “It doesn’t need to be a kung fu sequence. It doesn’t need to be an onion pancake,” she explains.
“I think this is such a beautiful work of art about just being human, and we just happen to be Asian.”