Sometimes, the worst thing about being a fan of something is dealing with other people who love the same thing you do. Guaranteed, your favorite sports team has insufferable fans, and even if you aren’t one of them, you get lumped in with the jerks — after all, you’re all rooting for the same club. But this problem is especially potent if you have a passion for film. I love all kinds of movies — I write about them for a living — but I don’t always love how my fellow cineastes treat their film love. (God, just that word “cineaste” is bad enough, suggesting an insufferably pretentious snob.)
The worst kind of movie fan is known in the culture as a “film bro” — meaning, that they’re (1) usually a guy; and (2) usually obnoxious about their opinions, lording their cinematic knowledge over you like it’s a contest. Stereotypically, they worship a certain kind of serious auteur — say, Christopher Nolan — in such an unbearably defensive and possessive way that, even though I’m a huge Nolan guy, I don’t necessarily advertise it because these bores have sucked the joy out of my fandom. What’s the point of loving something if it makes you a decidedly worse human being?
Randall Park has been a dependably funny presence for years, starring on Fresh Off the Boat, appearing in Always Be My Maybe and generally making Marvel movies better by his very presence. Today, he releases his feature directorial debut, Shortcomings, which is a very funny comedy about relationships, race and identity. But it’s also a deft takedown of the kind of film bro who makes everyone around him miserable. That such an individual is actually the movie’s main character — one you have some sympathy for, while understanding what an asshole he is — makes Shortcomings not just sharp but also thought-provoking. How many of us are carrying around little chips on our shoulder — clinging to our rightness about how to be in the world — when we’re really just alienating ourselves from anybody who’d ever want to be around us?
Justin H. Min plays Ben, who lives in the Bay Area and is in that awkward middle ground between “not super-young” and “not quite old enough to have his shit together yet.” (You know, your early 30s.) Because Shortcomings is coming out through indie-friendly Sony Pictures Classics, it’s going to attract the type of audience whose sensibility may have significant overlap with Ben’s. Like them, he’s a film-lover with very firm opinions — he makes a fetish of his adoration for the Criterion Collection and is besotted with heralded all-time directors such as Ozu. He’s also a failed filmmaker himself who’s now running a struggling arthouse theater, surrounded by employees who also love movies but are more socially-awkward than he is.
Ben’s life seems to be at a crossroads — or maybe it’s a dead end — but not everything is bleak. He’s got his movies, of course. And he has a girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), who works for a local film festival dedicated to elevating Asian-American voices. But in an early sign of the kind of person we’re dealing with, Ben grumbles his discontent to Miko about a glossy rom-com — an obvious reference to actual glossy rom-com Crazy Rich Asians — that her festival is screening. She’s frustrated that he’s so critical of the film: Doesn’t he care that a mainstream movie is, for once, focused on Asian characters? As far as Ben is concerned, the film is just trash — not up to the standards of the masters he reveres. Ben’s a guy who’s into art, not commerce or feel-good pablum. And he’ll drone on about the matter endlessly, much to Miko’s annoyance.
Shortcomings is adapted by Adrian Tomine from his own graphic novel, which is just one reason why the movie draws comparisons to Ghost World — another film based on a comic that dwells in the land of misanthropes. Park’s film is less hostile than Ghost World — the movie exudes the actor’s happy-go-lucky demeanor — but it’s perceptive about Ben, who will go through a coming-of-age phase way later than he should have. Ben isn’t a hopeless grump or a loathsome son of a bitch — there’s a sweet, soulful guy in there — but Park and Min put the screws to him, letting life kick him around a little until, maybe just maybe, he grows up a tad. That outcome, though, is far from assured.
Ben and Miko are having problems, and when she announces she’s moving to New York for three months for a prestigious internship, he starts wondering what that means. Are they breaking up? That’s left unresolved, but once she takes off, he reacts to her absence immaturely, deciding to date the super-cute younger woman, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who’s started working at the movie theater. Unlike Ben’s high-maintenance girlfriend, Autumn is full of enthusiasm and thinks he’s just the most interesting guy in the world. Plus, she’s in a (bad) band! And does crazy art! Miko gave him nothing but headaches: Why should Ben, who knows he’s right about everything, have to put up with that?
Yes, you’ve guessed correctly: This new relationship won’t go well, and neither with another he stumbles into. But what makes Shortcomings work is that Min plays this guy so charmingly that you almost look past his flaws — or, at the very least, understand why women would. Ben certainly fits the description of a film bro, but he’s not all petulant narcissism — in other words, he’s not like the stereotype and, instead, a more complicated individual, probably like lots of actual film bros. Park even cleverly gets us on Ben’s side at the start of Shortcomings: You know, Ben does seem right about that lame Crazy Rich Asians-like movie. (Also, he can be funny with his snotty hot takes.) We’ll eventually discover his less-appealing qualities, though — his self-loathing, his insistence on viewing other people’s choices as a betrayal of him and his principles — and by the end of Shortcomings, it’s made abundantly clear that so many of Ben’s problems are the product of his own shortcomings. Does he himself understand that? I’m not entirely sure.
As Ben navigates his romantic troubles, he spends a lot of time with his best friend, a queer grad student named Alice (Sherry Cola). Like Ben, she shoots from the lip, and she has no compunction about calling him out on his shit. Their exchanges are some of the film’s funniest moments, and in general Shortcomings’ banter and wised-up look at modern relationships have a snarky irreverence without being particularly edgy. For better or worse, this is a fairly nice movie about a fairly not-nice guy — one that’s sympathetic to the way that unformed adults keep making a mess of their situation in order to get out of the last mess they put themselves into. But the film’s friendly, polished surface is also a bit of a feint, sugarcoating the pill that Ben will eventually have to swallow about his own crappy behavior.
It’s worth mentioning that Shortcomings is also operating on another level, examining the challenges for Asian-Americans in a country that treats you, perhaps, better than other minority groups but can still be pretty shitty regardless. The critique is more nuanced than that, though, with Park touching on specific tensions within the Asian community. (Ben’s chasing of Autumn draws criticism because of a perception, by Miko and others, that he’s obsessed with the “traditional” beauty of blonde white women.) I don’t feel remotely qualified to discuss that aspect of Shortcomings — for a deeper read on these themes in the movie, I highly recommend Jessica Kiang’s insightful Variety review — but I will say that it points to some of the inconsistencies in Ben’s supposedly airtight view of the world. Holding himself up as a man of great sensitivity — both for art and for navigating life — Ben can easily abandon his principles to seek approval or to get over a broken heart. It’s the same problem film bros have when they see movie matters in rigid black-and-white/us-versus-them terms: You only make yourself seem silly when you don’t give others permission to view things differently than you do.
Pop culture has its share of lovable jerks. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. The gang on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We know they’re terrible, and we’re invited to laugh at their terribleness. Shortcomings’ protagonist doesn’t share a ton in common with those characters, except for an ability to provide some wish-fulfillment for the audience. Ben walks around befuddled because nobody understands how smart he is about movies and, frankly, everything else. (When Miko tells him about the internship, he haughtily dismisses New York as wretched because of how gentrified it is — even though it’s unclear if he’s ever actually been to New York.) Even if you don’t care about movies at all, you’ve probably had some instances when that same self-righteousness poisoned you. When life doesn’t work out the way we want it to, we have a tendency to double-down on our beliefs. It’s not my fault that things blew up — it’s because of the other person, or the world at large. Can I help it that nobody gets my brilliance?
Ultimately, Shortcomings argues that “film bro” is just a new way to describe a mansplainer, a know-it-all, a prick. But because Park’s movie is so funny and light, we spend much of the movie not fully grasping just how much Ben needs to change. Ben doesn’t, either, but as the people he cares about all move away, leaving him to stew in his genius alone, he’ll finally get the wake-up call. Perhaps.
Viewers have different perspectives on the end of Shortcomings, and I won’t spoil what happens. But what others see as a happy ending — maybe even a cop-out feel-good resolution — reads differently to me. We all have a little film bro in us — we can all be too proud of how right we think we are — but we can change. It takes some doing, though. Shortcomings’ resolution is apt for the Bens we know: Like in the kind of movies he loves, the finale leaves you with more questions than answers.