Reflecting on Randall Park’s Shortcomings, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted.
On the one hand, Adrian Tomine’s adaptation of his own graphic comic book is a fascinating slice-of-life snapshot of the conflicted reactions that I have toward the social media experience; more specifically, how we interact with each other on social media being a lacking representation of how we interact with each other in the real world, the lines of decorum have become blurred. It is reactionary rather than reflective.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the fragile human ego, a part of the human equation are based on our experiences and values. And when we’re “lost,” as often happens today, the pressures of societal pivots to a lightning-quick change in our “norms,” we often replace objectivity with subjective bluntness. We laugh off a situation while failing to face ourselves.
We’ve become numb.
We’re not about making ourselves happy, a quandary that Ben (Justin H. Min) overlooks as he jokingly shoves every other emotion aside in a feeble attempt to make others happy. An awkwardness arises because we don’t know how to respond to human feelings.
Ben is an aspiring film director steeped in film history while running a movie theater in Berkeley. Ben is in his happy place, whether on the couch in his girlfriend Miko’s (Ally Maki) rather posh apartment, watching a classic film, or in the theater, where his staff, mainly comprised of Gene (Jacob Batalon) and Lamont (Scott Seiss) endlessly debate the merits of classic cinema versus pop culture cinema; both can talk up a storm about movies while actively saying nothing.
Their conversation behind the concession counter as Ben introduces Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), the newest employee at the theater to them, is a prime example of my conflicted feelings about Shortcomings, as they immediately denigrate Autumn. Ben politely asks them to hold their tongues so as not to put Autumn off from even starting the job.
The exchange between the characters is also the inherent beauty of Shortcomings. Park is quick to disseminate the awkwardness that we put into the world to find others who can debate us on our own levels, within our own bubbles or spheres of interest. Tomine’s razor-sharp dialogue brims with wit and a sharp rebuttal for each action the characters employ.
The dialogue itself is numbing.
On the other hand, Ben has become so disconnected from his reality that he can’t see how his cynicism affects others, a point that Miko makes as she informs him that she’s taking on an internship in New York City and he’s not invited. Ben’s friend, Alice (Sherry Cola), maintains a childish relationship with him founded on a circuitous dynamic. Her moral compass is just as screwed up as he is – they’re two peas in a pod, except he’s Japanese and has a particular type of woman he’s attracted to, while Alice has a fetish for a specific kind of woman.
The second half of the story, where Ben is actively engaged in his life, improves the numbness while injecting particular societal idiosyncrasies into the film’s fabric. It still maintains the air of confusion, though it rises above itself to become reflective instead of reflexive with its viewpoint.
Park’s refreshing film made me realize that this is the world we live in – where a social movement actively corrects the characters, rather than just letting them be, to how we interact with each other has transformed into our everyday speech.
There is a flip side to Shortcomings where the fragility of the human ego is at play – where Ben realizes that he is the center of his own universe and that sometimes we just need to grow up. It isn’t vanity to acknowledge the social issues we tout, laced with big-sounding words with minimal context, how what we say or how it might affect others. It becomes condescending without intent, without experience. Equality and equity are essential aspects of the human condition worth fighting for – the foundation of this grand experiment called the United States. Somehow, we forgot that.
Within these high falutin words lies a slow brewing film that ultimately causes us to look inward. We’re always afraid to look in the mirror and ask our reflections about ourselves. Admittedly, it takes an army sometimes to get us there. But, when we’re genuine with our intentions, when we learn to communicate with intent and clarity, realizing that we’re chasing after a dream when we haven’t made ourselves happy is a fruitless venture.
In fact, Shortcomings made me stop in my tracks, and it isn’t because the main character carries my namesake or that Min is captivatingly handsome. Maybe it’s because the character had to be told more than once that his outward insecurities were a reflection of himself. However, the moral direction of the story is in learning to communicate with each other; to put feeling and meaning into what we say and how we behave.
As conflicted as I was with Shortcomings, one thing is sure. It had a lot on its mind and knew exactly what to say.
If we take anything away from the movie, it is a worthy journey to be shared with the world.
Directed by Randall Park
Written by Adrian Tomine, based on the Graphic Comics, Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno, Timothy Simons
R, 92 mins, Sony Pictures Classics