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Movie review: Cultural authenticity in ‘Always Be My Maybe’ spices up rom-com genre

(Courtesy of Ed Araquel/Netflix)

"Always Be My Maybe"

Directed by Nahnatchka Khan


May 31

By Umber Bhatti

May 30, 2019 11:02 p.m.

For once, Keanu Reeves is unlikable.

The actor briefly appears in “Always Be My Maybe,” the latest Netflix original film set to hit the streaming service and select theaters Friday. Reeves plays himself in a parallel world where, rather than assuming the role of a heroic or charming lead, he’s a pretentious jerk, reciting lines like, “The only stars that matter are the ones you see when you dream.”

The actor’s character is starkly juxtaposed with Marcus (Randall Park), the pot-smoking lead singer of a group he started in high school. Despite being a decent bandlistening to Park rap ridiculous lyrics is one of the highlights of the film – the group’s stuck in a rut, playing in the same San Francisco venues it did when the members were adolescents.

[RELATED: Q&A: Noah Centineo discusses his favorite movies and chemistry with co-stars]

Marcus, 34, still lives with his Korean father in his childhood home, drives his beat-up high school car and works in the family air-conditioning business. He is the quintessential man who chooses not to grow up. And while the role treads a fine line between relatable and irritating, it is brought to life by Park who is hilarious, adding a down-to-earth humility to the character.

This is not the case for Sasha (Ali Wong), Marcus’ childhood-best-friend-turned-celebrity-chef. She is lost in the world of fancy food, dubbing her cuisine “transdenominational” when discussing its potential mass appeal. In one instance, she states her menus will be on rice paper because “white people eat that shit up.”

The social commentary here is clear. The film mocks the way in which Asian food has been exoticized to appeal to non-Asians, yet it also reveals Sasha’s complacency in this cultural appropriation. In Marcus’ mind, Sasha has forgotten who she is. He calls her out on her catchphrase –elevating Asian food” – deeming it an effort to Westernize Asian dishes rather than celebrate them in their authentic form.

The two friends didn’t always have this tension between them. The film’s opening scenes depict Sasha and Marcus as carefree children, hinting at the romance that could grow between them. But after Marcus’ mother dies during their senior year of high school, the two stop speaking – a silence that lasts 16 years.

The film then picks up when an older Sasha is dumped by her famous fiance and manager Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim). In the wake of the breakup, Sasha moves from Los Angeles back to her hometown of San Francisco to prepare for the opening of her new restaurants. She is reunited with Marcus and his father when they install an air conditioner in her temporary San Francisco home. After several years apart, the two former friends struggle to reconnect, a stark contrast to the opening scenes in which they sit underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, share snacks and play dress-up.

One of the most poignant aspects of the film is its depiction of the relationship between Marcus’ family and Sasha. Often left alone as a child, Sasha found a second home in Marcus’ family and even learned the joys of cooking from Marcus’ mother. In a way, this strong connection Sasha develops with the family during her formative years makes it hard to believe she would forget the people who essentially raised her. Sasha’s decision to leave Marcus’ family in the past becomes an almost implausible plot point. Despite this, Wong infuses humor to the character through her effective delivery of witty dialogue. Her comedic skill meshes well with Park’s throughout the entirety of the film.

Written by UCLA alumni Wong and Park themselves, the film received a ton of buzz when it was announced, and rightfully so. The rom-com is composed of an almost entirely Asian American cast and crew. Such authentic representation depicted in the film is essentially its largest selling point, as it doesn’t rely on typical stereotypes to mold the characters.

[RELATED: Q&A: Alum Randall Park talks acting career, role in ‘Fresh Off The Boat’]

The film proves that Asian American actors can be not only the leading stars in a romantic comedy, but also the secondary characters – who, besides Reeves, all happen to be people of color, none of whom are type-casted. Marcus’ bandmate, Tony, is played by Indian actor Karan Soni, who also appears in “Deadpool 2.” And instead of being a cab-driving caricature with a thick accent, Tony is simply an ordinary guy who smokes weed, loses 50 pounds and plays in a band no racial stereotypes required.

Following the success of critically acclaimed films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” “Always Be My Maybe” is yet another clear indication that movies with a predominantly Asian American cast are not only entertaining, but also a necessary inclusion in Hollywood, seeing as audiences clearly support these projects. With awkward car sex scenes, touching father-son moments and a crazy Reeves, the film is a welcome addition to the growing Netflix rom-com repertoire. In its 101-minute run time, “Always Be My Maybe” is a breeze to get through, with both humorous and emotional moments expressing its core theme: the importance of remembering your roots, no matter where life may take you.

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Umber Bhatti
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