Over the last decade, Eddie Huang has been seemingly everything you can think of: a successful restaurateur, clothing designer and, most notably, the author responsible for Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir that inspired the ABC sitcom of the same name. But Huang has apparently had interest in filmmaking for a long time, and the fruits of that labor are shown in 'Boogie,' his feature debut as a director.
The film was shot in mid-2019 and is finally getting a release from Focus Features (for obvious reasons) and I'll admit I was kind of intrigued. It was looking to bring a lot of well-crafted nuance to a long-overdue story about Asian American athletes and the cultural melting pot that basketball can provide, especially with New York street ball. There was certainly the question of whether or not Huang was the best choice to direct a movie about culture clashes given some of his more controversial moments, but I was curious enough. What did we get with 'Boogie?'
Well, for the most part, it's kind of exactly what I expected because Eddie Huang does prove himself a pretty capable storyteller behind the camera. He has an eye for interesting story directions and good sense of where to aim a pretty talented cast to make a pretty entertaining sports movie. The issue is whether or not that approach is a good thing, as Huang seems much more involved in the clichés of sports movies than zeroing in on his layers of nuanced character or themes. The results are certainly compelling enough, but I also kept wondering how much of this was actually living up to those ideas.
Alfred "Boogie" Chin (played by Taylor Takahashi) is a high school basketball prodigy, living with his Chinese-American family in Queens, New York. His father (played by Perry Yung) believes Boogie could absolutely make the NBA, with the right college opportunity and banking a lot of attention on an upcoming game against a dominant local player, Monk (played by the late Pop Smoke). His mother (played by Pamelyn Chee) isn't as optimistic about Boogie's chances, seeing more prospect in Melvin (played by Mike Moh), a manager with potential opportunities in the Chinese Basketball Association.
Boogie's parents transfer him to a new school in the hopes that it will give him a better education and better opportunities for college scouting. While there, he begins to form a relationship with Eleanor (played by Taylour Paige) and begins to help his team win games with teammate Richie (played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). However, Boogie often lets his temper get the better of him, driving a wedge between himself and his teammates, as well as inflaming his inner conflict with his familial and cultural expectations.
Asian basketball players in the NBA are currently few and far between, and to Eddie Huang's credit, he always makes sure there are defined stakes for Boogie as a character. Boogie is someone who has a distinct, but often complex, love and appreciation for his parents. He struggles juggling his own ambition and focused talent on the court with the opportunities his parents went through so much to get him, and the movie never lets us as the audience feel as though there's an easy answer for him.
In fact, many of those subtle moments are what save 'Boogie' from falling into more generic material. It's moments like Boogie's insecurity with Eleanor or his attempts to show legitimate progress with his coaches that make the character so interesting, allowing us to see Boogie the character contrasted against his culture and values. There's also cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz ('Ready or Not), who works with Huang to get into Boogie's headspace of Queens, from the muted color palette to some really excellent shot choices (including a particularly tense dinner scene).
With that being said, it's also kind of disappointing how surface-level the movie feels in some of its regards. Eddie Huang has all the material available to actually dive deep into so many ideas - the culture clashes between black and Asian Americans, the generational divides between immigrant parents and their kids, and the contrast between American and Chinese basketball cultures just to name a few - and he just doesn't want to.
'Boogie' wants to be a bonified sports movie, following those tried-and-true paces, giving you the excitement of the sport and the satisfactory feeling the best of genre can deliver. The problem is that Eddie Huang's direction and script are just not up to scruff and it shows during the actual basketball matches and training moments. The big finale is where Boogie and his parents' journeys should be at their peak, where the stakes should be at their most volatile. Yet it just tries to play it off as another ball game, which would be fine if Eddie Huang wasn't clearly trying to aim for something more aspirational, and the film is full of those from top to bottom.
I was reminded of Jonah Hill's 'Mid90s' while watching 'Boogie;' both are directorial debuts with compelling lead characters and a ton of potential and subject matter to draw from (also both focusing on sports subcultures and the results of exploring identity). But I also think 'Boogie' suffers the same problems: it doesn't go quite deep enough, it doesn't want to, and where the focus is eventually placed just doesn't feel distinct enough.
That's the thing, I don't want to sound too harsh with this movie because, on some level, I think it does work the way Eddie Huang wants it to. His cast is clearly up for the challenge, the smaller moments really do feel potent, and an Asian American sports story squarely focused on dueling identities feels long overdue. If these are the stories Eddie Huang, the filmmaker, wants to address going forward, than I'm intrigued to see what he can do with this under his belt, even if it doesn't stick the initiative started here.
Overall, I give 'Boogie' 6/10
'Boogie' is available in select theaters beginning on March 5, 2021.
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