With his best-selling autobiography “Fresh Off the Boat,” chef and restaurateur Eddie Huang eloquently explained the othering of Asian Americans. He’s also a hip-hop and basketball fan. His feature directorial debut “Boogie” concerns a talented Taiwanese American high school basketball player, the Queens native Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), and his bid to earn a college scholarship.
The road, of course, isn’t easy. The family’s bills pile up. His temperamental father (Perry Yung) is now on parole. His mother (Pamelyn Chee), who mercilessly berates her husband, is verbally and physically abusive. If Huang focused on the trio’s fraught dynamic, this coming-of-age story would elevate to the basket. Huang’s first feature, however, uplifts the Asian American struggle while falling into the same othering it purports to despise for an aimless, senseless, undramatic sports flick.
Boogie is an incredibly unlikable character. Muscle-bound, swaggering, and a hip-hop baby, he’s also not exactly the subtlest Romeo. When he first locks eyes with a headstrong Eleanor (Taylour Paige) at the gym, he stares at her crotch while she’s working out, then approaches her by saying, “You got a pretty vagina.”
Boogie transferred to her school to play for the on-the-nose named City Prep Dragons. It’s not altogether clear whether we should like or root for him, especially after he denounces his team as trash. See, the only reason he joined the three-win Dragons was to face the top player in the five boroughs Monk (the rapper Barshar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, who was murdered in 2020 in a robbery gone wrong), in the hopes that a win against him translates into a college scholarship. His plan, however, is nonsensical: College basketball recruiters aren’t nabbing players based on marquee matchups.
The relationship he forges with Eleanor makes even less sense — not just due to his earlier disgusting pickup line, but because Takahashi and Paige have the chemistry of cement sliding across steel. Paige is so lively and Takahashi is so dull, the pair never match. At most, their relationship serves as a respite from Boogie’s melodramatic home life. There, Huang inertly explicates both the pressures felt by Asian American children to succeed and the rot of trauma. He envisions a home torn apart by two bickering parents with their son left in the middle. The Chins’ modest apartment has been so covered in dark lighting that it requires night vision. The compositions, flat and drab, are equally frustrating: Even when the home erupts in argument, we’re still caught at a distance. Huang doesn’t want us to see much, and maybe that’s for the best.
He often undercuts his film’s central theme — how first-generation Asian Americans search for their own identities in a white society that consistently stereotypes them — by participating in the same generalizing he decries. From the way he dresses, to the music he pumps into his ears, Boogie is clearly influenced by Black American culture. He also explains to Eleanor how Asians have been reduced to beef and broccoli, poindexter or stoic server, when they can be so much more if given the chance; the way ethnic groups craft their Americanized identity isn’t always organic. (Awkwafina has often been accused of appropriating an already established Black American aesthetic to define a still-burgeoning Asian American image.)
There’s a story and some measure of sympathy that comes out of that struggle. Huang, however, also participates in the same type of othering by turning Monk into an underdeveloped final-round villain. Boogie, in fact, routinely stalks Monk at a pickup basketball court, as though for Boogie to be fully Americanized, he must leap over the progenitor of the culture he’s appropriated. It’s a story as old as America: The gateway to full citizenship has always been predicated on different racial groups and nationalities proving their superiority over Black folks. It’s just a shame that Huang has crafted an entire story around that uncomfortable tradition.
Boogie’s parents are also ill-drawn. His mother is as conscious of stereotypes as her son. When a college recruiter from Georgetown visits their home, she worries about how their apartment could look like a spa or a Chinese restaurant. The fiery Chee is one of the film’s few acting highlights. She balances two minds — the shrewd businesswoman angling for her son’s future and the errant mother who’s physically abusing him — with ease. In the family’s dinner scenes, she coldly dismisses Boogie’s father as a failure. And while Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge’s oddly brooding score distracts from the marital spat’s seriousness, Chee keeps us in the parental power struggle. That battle eventually sees her hiring Melvin (Mike Moh) to manage her son, though Melvin also has her on his mind, and Boogie’s father landing in jail again. To free his father, he must choose between playing in the Chinese Basketball Association or college.
In this regard, Huang takes his cues from another basketball movie about an up-and-coming player who must mortgage his college future to help his jailbird father — Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.” Huang, however, lacks the same handle on Boogie that Lee possessed with the father-son dynamic of Denzel Washington and Ray Allen. Lee’s story dealt specifically with redemption and the absenteeism of a Black father for his weary talented son. Boogie distrusts his teammates, his domineering mother, scheming father, skeezy manager, and faithful girlfriend — but these hurdles don’t translate into actionable stakes for the high school prospect. The monotonous Takahashi can’t exude the hurt that’s felt when the world sees you only as a stock option. He’s as misunderstood as a bungee cord used as a tightrope, but even when he signs the deal with the CBA, Takahashi leaves that wound covered.
Huang’s aimless screenplay does little to assist the young actor. Without Boogie’s collegiate ambitions, the climatic streetball game between Boogie and Monk fizzles because the nonexistent stakes render the contest meaningless. Yes, this scene shows him learning to trust his teammates. But without tethering that growth to a tangible victory, the subtle ways this lesson will change his life are moot. Frustratingly, the game’s distant action isn’t compelling either. Rather than being immersive, editor Joan Sobel over-cuts to reaction shots of spectators and bird eye-views of the court in relation to the Williamsburg bridge. By doing so, he deflates the inherent on-court drama. It’s as though neither he nor Huang are terribly interested in basketball.
Huang does appear in the film as comic relief — Boogie’s uncle Jacki — and he also makes allusions to the complicated recognition Taiwanese, even those living in America, face with regards to China’s contentious rule. Unfortunately, there’s not much to like in the film: Basketball fans will find the drab play frustrating. Black viewers will see their culture appropriated once more to uplift another race. And it’s not altogether clear if Asian Americans or any viewer should root for Boogie. While he’s the victim of childhood abuse, unlike “Good Will Hunting,” the peeling back of his upbringing is frustratingly incomplete. What is obvious is that Huang’s “Boogie” is a 90-minute aimless mess that sets back as much as it saves.
Focus Features releases “Boogie” in theaters on March 5, 2021.
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