Getting deep into the heads of teenagers is a gift. It’s a calling.
Twenty-nine-year-old writer/director Sean Wang isn’t far removed from that age group, and he seems to have a feel for teen life that other filmmakers don’t. Just enough insight to create an extremely funny and very touching look at adolescents in Freemont, CA a city in San Francisco Bay Area.
Chris Wang (Izaac Wang), a 13-year-old Taiwanese American kid, just made the transition from tween to teen. In the summer of 2008, he hangs with his crew Fahad (Raul Dial) and Soup (Aaron Chang), fights with his older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen), disrespects his mom Chungsing (Joan Chen, The Last Emperor) and tolerates his granny Nai Nai (Chang Li Hua).
This rite of passage poses a whole new set of challenges. He’s experiencing puppy love with his first crush Madi (Mahaela Park) but doesn’t know how to kiss. He wants to join a skateboard crew run by the older teen Donovan (Chiron Cilla Denk) but isn’t as good as the group. Also, the kid is being introduced to booze and weed and his body can’t handle either one. It’s overwhelming. It’s a problem.
As Chris, or as his mom calls him Didi, faces growing pains, vulnerability and hard knocks this diary becomes more fun, real and tender. The screenplay gets under the skin of its characters, young and old, people clumsily finding their way through life. The atmosphere and culture of Fremont, CA has its own aura. School yards, homes (production designer Hanrui Wang) and clothes (costume designer Brianna Murphy) represent the time and trends.
The direction starts the movie with a bang. An exploding mailbox. In the first five minutes viewers know Didi is a firecracker, and his family and friends are endearingly crazy. That introduction sets the 13-yeard-old on a path strewn with enough obstacles, mistakes and broken friendships to remind viewers of that phase in their lives. You don’t have to be Asian to feel the kid’s trauma. Just human.
All the relationships are testy enough to be entertaining. But the love/hate dynamics between the scheming younger brother and older condescending sister are on steroids. Sure, sibling rivalry plays out in households all around the world. But that said, their mean, spiteful and hilarious behavior is a monster. Even in the heat of battle most boys wouldn’t dream of pissing in their sister’s lotion bottle for spite and most girls wouldn’t threaten to put secretions from their period in their brother’s mouths to avenge their dignity. Their pranks cross the line. Fortunately.
There are no rules here. Bad behavior is rampant. It’s all good. That’s why you can’t take your eyes off the screen for 91 succinct minutes (editor Arielle Zakowski, Missing), or stop tapping your toe to the musical soundtrack (Giosuè Greco) or forget the sunny California weather that makes everything glisten (cinematographer Sam A. Davis).
The Wang family is so engaging because the performances ring true. Izaac Wang knows how to act mischievous. Joan Chen well plays a non-helicopter mom who still drives her son nuts, Shirley Chen makes Vivian a verbally brow-beats Didi like she’s a psychological terrorist. And every supporting actor, from Hua as the prying grandma, to the friends, to the girl who breaks Didi’s heart, is stellar.
If the script has a flaw, its adding homophobia into the kid’s vocabulary. Swearing beyond your years and not knowing how vile what you’re saying is normal. Kids don’t know the magnitude of their words. But adults do. That’s why it’s perplexing for a screenplay, written by a grownup, to give young characters dialogue that uses “gay” as a slur. For LGBQT+ teens who watch the film, this is a slap in the face. It’s unforgivingly callous, especially considering the hatred that’s been rained on the Asian community in recent years. Words used as weapons to degrade groups don’t have a place in a film like this. No excuses.
Otherwise, Dìdi (弟弟)and Sean Wang exhibit a wonderful style and a tangy slice of life as kids and parents grapple with life in the most humorous ways. There’s enough good comedy/drama here to spawn a TV or streaming series that could become an integral part of American pop culture.