Actors Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola in a scene from the movie "Shortcomings"
Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola in “Shortcomings” (Sony Pictures Classics)

I, like so many of us, spend way too much time on the internet.

Specifically, I spend way too much time on Twitter, which becomes more of a cesspool with every waking hour. That little bird – or X, as it were – seems to have fried our collective brain in many ways, but as I spend most of my time thinking about movies, I notice it more in the realm of film criticism. 

My problem with many of the discussions around movies online is that the only thing anyone really seems to care about is that they have the “correct” opinion. We’ve all fallen victim to it – it’s all about making sure you have the “right” thing to say in response to anything that might be wrong with whatever movie is taking up cultural capital at whatever time. It’s about hating a movie for the “right” reasons, and snarkily scoffing at anyone who dares to raise their hand tentatively and say, “Well, I liked it!” 

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with a little disagreement about movies among friends. But there is a moral righteousness that can build itself up on the internet in a way I find extremely limiting when we’re talking about art. “Shortcomings,” Randall Park’s directorial debut, captures this particular brand of cynicism with a keen eye and expands it to the real world. 

“Shortcomings” is based on a 2007 graphic novel by Adrian Tomine and follows three young Asian Americans as they navigate through tricky questions of relationships and identity. There’s Ben (Justin H. Min), an aspiring filmmaker who manages a local arts cinema; He’s on the verge of a break up with Miko (Ally Maki), his long-suffering girlfriend who just got a film internship in New York City; and then there’s Alice (Sherry Cola), Ben’s best friend who’s in grad school and hiding her sexuality from her family. 

The film opens with Ben, grimacing his way through a “Crazy Rich Asians” knock-off seemingly just for Miko’s sake. From the little bit of the fake film we get to see, it’s clearly not very good. But when it ends, the audience erupts with applause as Ben sinks further into his seat in disbelief. Afterwards, he can hardly hide his distaste, but he also doesn’t really try to. As he and Miko leave the theater, he starts ranting about everything he hated about the film. He shoots down any and all of Miko’s attempts to argue why some people might connect to the movie, or how a big, glossy Hollywood production starring Asian actors might open the door for smaller, more personal films also starring Asian actors (movies like “Shortcomings,” perhaps). 

But Ben won’t hear any of it. As he droned on, I was reminded of every jerk I’ve ever seen do this sort of thing on the internet. Even if they might be a little bit right, they take a gross sort of glee in knocking down all arguments to the contrary. Then, a terrible thought hit me. I winced – I hope I’ve never sounded like this much of an asshole, I thought. 

The opening of “Shortcomings” works so well because it puts arguments you might otherwise agree with into the mouth of an unhappy, deeply unlikable protagonist. Your mileage may vary on how much you’re able to get on board with that particular protagonist throughout the rest of the film, but Park’s and screenwriter Tomine’s willingness to let their main character be as terrible as he often is is admirable – and if you find yourself somehow rooting for him to get better by the end, it’s nothing short of movie magic. 

This is the first feature for Park, who you’ve seen act in everything from Marvel movies, to “Always Be My Maybe,” to “Fresh Off the Boat.” He often plays extremely amiable, funny characters, but around the release of this film has spoken about how he is more drawn to the types of imperfections we see in a character like Ben. For the New York Times, Matt Stevens recently wrote a wonderful piece about how a new group of Asian American voices are exploring the experience by pushing past so-called palatable stories and focusing on characters who are deeply flawed, and therefore deeply human. Ben – with his self-loathing, sarcastic manner, and superiority complex – fits the bill completely. 

Likability or the lack thereof is an interesting point of contention. Some people will argue that a protagonist can’t be unlikable, or they don’t like watching movies where there’s no character to really “root for.” I think there’s something more going on, however, than just not liking to spend time with unlikable people. When an unlikable or complex character is well written, it can be discomfiting to look up at the screen and recognize bits of yourself in someone who is objectively terrible. Ben is a guy who is all too happy to dish it out, but can’t take it when it’s served back. His relationship with Miko clearly makes both of them unhappy, but he is afraid to be alone and unwilling to admit that. There are a couple of conversations throughout “Shortcomings” about questions of identity, and Ben often balks at the idea that he was discriminated against because he was Japanese American, or that his sexual preference for white women has anything to do with race. Conversely, when Miko is attracted to a white man, Ben classifies that relationship as inherently about race. There’s no room for nuance of any kind in the way Ben sees the world – his view is perfect, everyone else is wrong. Who among us has not felt that way at some point in our lives?

Where “Shortcomings” falls short is its inability to explore Miko and Alice’s stories outside of Ben’s. The film is billed as ostensibly about three protagonists, but it’s really mostly just about Ben. As Miko, Maki tells us a lot with just her physicality. After a nearly sweet moment with Ben in a car is interrupted by a flight of road rage on his part, her body sags down into her seat in quiet resignation, the almost, not-quite twinkle in her eye fizzling out. It’s a reaction that shows us she’s clearly been dealing with this sort of thing for years – “I’ve learned not to bore you,” she tells Ben over the phone when he asks about her day. Cola, who’s dry, quick delivery as Alice carries the film’s humor, gets the short end of the stick characterization-wise. Her character’s growth comes filtered through the lens of Ben. When she’s arguing with a new girlfriend who might be more than just a hookup, the camera focuses on Ben listening to them fight through a wall. It’s almost as if Ben’s self-centered nature has bled out onto the film’s structure. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.