Shortly before the 2015 series premiere of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the network sitcom loosely based on Eddie Huang’s memoir, the lawyer-turned-chef-turned-author unleashed a take-no-prisoners denouncement of the the first Asian-American family comedy on broadcast TV in more than 20 years. “That show is a lie,” Huang recalls telling its executive producer Melvin Mar, whom he calls an “Uncle Chan” in the piece. In an interview with THR’s Lesley Goldberg, Huang proposed that the goofy, gentle sitcom hew closer to his own life by “div[ing] into domestic violence,” a childhood ordeal that he suffered at the hands of his parents.
During Fresh Off the Boat’s uneven but industry-shifting run, its erstwhile inspiration hosted the food-centric travel show Huang’s World on Viceland. Now, Huang adds filmmaker to his wide-ranging resumé, with the arrival of his feature directorial debut, Boogie, a coming-of-age drama set in Flushing, Queens. Starring Taylor Takahashi, Huang’s former assistant, in his first screen role, Boogie feels like a personal project in a way Fresh Off the Boat seldom did, taking as its building blocks some of the most formative elements of Huang’s upbringing: hip hop, basketball, racial alienation. And familial abuse. There’s a confidence that radiates off the screen: Huang knows this story will resonate with kindred souls.
A solid first feature that derives strength from its personal elements.
Don’t expect Takahashi’s title character to be the world’s biggest Jeremy Lin fan. “He’s more model-minority Jesus freak than he is Asian,” says Boogie in pure Huangspeak — acerbic, provocative, always ready to slap the “sellout” label on people he doesn’t care for. Boogie, née Alfred Chin, is styled like Huang too, with close-cropped hair and comfy streetwear. There’s a good chance Boogie would identify as a “rotten banana” — the unflattering shorthand Huang’s father coined to describe his son as “black on the outside, yellow on the inside.”
Whereas Huang’s own dad snubbed his dreams of joining the NBA, Mr. Chin (Perry Yung) is all-in on his high-school-athlete son’s aspirations to go pro, even transferring Boogie to a new school where he has a better chance of being noticed by college recruiters. But the statistical improbability of this ambition — combined with the family’s perilous finances — drives Mrs. Chin (Pamelyn Chee) toward a sense of rage-filled helplessness and increasing violence toward her only child. Huang is a gifted-enough writer-director already to make her slaps feel surprising in the moment yet long-endured by her son.
At school, Boogie’s awareness of both his future-star skills and the burden that his parents have put on him to save them from their economic troubles translates to cockiness on the court, much to the frustration of his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi). Boogie’s no less brash when it comes to pursuing Eleanor (Taylour Paige), a classmate he openly stares at until she can’t not notice his horndog attention. But the person Boogie eyeballs hardest is his rival Monk (rapper Pop Smoke, in his posthumous film debut). In a technique that recalls Barry Jenkins, Huang employs extreme close-ups of his actors’ faces often to powerful effect, their eyes simultaneously in the scene but also silently confronting the audience.
If Huang’s disillusionment with Fresh Off the Boat led him to figure out what kind of Asian-American story he wanted to tell, Boogie is a beneficiary of those ruminations. It’s a solid first film, with a firm grasp on its melancholy but romantic tone, which never gets in the way of its propulsive momentum. (An early montage of Flushing’s immigrant communities and overall neighborliness, set to hip hop, is a credit to Huang and editor Joan Sobel.) For all their faults, Boogie’s English-fluent, somewhat-assimilated parents (and his uncle Jackie, played by Huang himself in a cameo) give voice to a longer sense of Asian-American history than we usually get in similar films, and a pre-sex conversation between Boogie and Eleanor about stereotypes and penis size (or rather, his sensitivity about it) is an excellent showcase of Huang’s eagerness to tackle difficult subjects.
It’s occasionally hard to understand the slang-heavy, sometimes muttered dialogue, which ends up adding to Boogie’s sense of authenticity. (Ever talk to teenagers?) Takahashi is riveting in some scenes and lacking in others, and it’s not always clear whether a blankness in his eyes is part of the character’s flirtations with emotional nihilism or the actor’s inexperience showing through. The film also would’ve benefitted from more development in the parental characters, whose dysfunctions aren’t as interesting as their efforts to manage them. But Boogie’s got personal vision and swaggering flair to spare — Huang wouldn’t have it any other way.
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Taylor Takahashi, Pamelyn Chee, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mike Moh, David Brewster Jr., Perry Yung, Alexa Mareka, Taylour Paige, Domenick Lombardozzi, Pop Smoke, Eddie Huang
Director: Eddie Huang
Producers: Josh Bratman, Michael Tadross, Josh McLaughlin
Executive producer: Rafael Martinez
Director of photography: Brett Jutkiewicz
Production designer: Chris Trujillo
Costume designer: Vera Chow
Editor: Joan Sobel
Casting: Rebecca Dealy, Jessica Kelly
Rated R, 89 minutes