Eddie Huang’s debut feature film, Boogie, tells the story of a young Chinese American man who is struggling with his ambitions to one day be an NBA basketball player and the responsibilities laid on him by his family. As the director and writer for Boogie, it is immediately clear that Huang mined from his own childhood. This works to both his benefit and his detriment. Where Boogie fails is its weak script, the dialogue is often stilted and the film lacks subtlety of any sort.
So where does this film shine? It shines primarily in the chemistry between the lead and his two parents. Alfred Chin aka Boogie (Taylor Takahashi) plays the titular character being raised by his father (Perry Yung) and his mother (Pamelyn Chee). The family dynamic is a caustic one, with the parents arguing over money, Boogie’s dad’s criminal past, and Boogie’s future. It’s perhaps not a familiar image that some Americans are used to seeing from an Asian family. Often stereotyped as a model minority, Asian characters in Hollywood rarely are violent, aggressive, or in trouble with the law. They abide by the rules, they’re polite, they’re high-achieving in schools. But Boogie and his family do not fit this mold.
This was the high point of the film. It felt, as a Chinese American myself with a similar childhood, very realistic in its portrayal. The Mandarin dialogue is fantastic, Pamelyn Chee really shines in her role as Boogie’s mother. Balancing handling the bulk of responsibilities with the desperate desire to keep her family out of financial ruin, it’s hard for Boogie to see things from his mother’s perspective. In a relationship where she often has to play the bad cop to Perry Yung’s good cop, Boogie finds his mother annoying in her dogged approach toward gaining him a sports scholarship. What is left unsaid, unfortunately, is the reasoning behind why Boogie can seemingly walk-on on a University team in the country but none will offer him a scholarship.
There seems to be a desire to remove itself from too much difficult social commentary in this film when it comes to racism. Character throw around slurs like it’s nothing, there’s a lot of shade thrown at Jeremy Lin, but there is a large mine here that feels completely untapped. With allegations that Ivy League universities discriminate against Asian college applicants, Boogie’s struggle to gain an academic scholarship feels like an extension of academic and systemic racism. The film never says outright that because Boogie is a Chinese American, but are we to form the conclusion that because he doesn’t look like a typical American ballplayer, the school is not willing to invest in him?
Boogie is portrayed as a basketball wunderkind. China wants him to play for them, he’s being watched by recruiters across the country. He’s touted as the next big thing, but it’s not just his temper that is holding him back. It’s the color of his skin. Even though Boogie was born in the US, was raised in New York, he is distinctively Chinese. He was raised by Chinese-Taiwanese parents (there’s a joke about this being ‘complicated’ and that joke is accurate), he speaks Mandarin, and he understands Chinese culture (the youngest pours tea for the group, we are reminded about ten times). In the eyes of China’s basketball association, Boogie is a fantastic find.
We glimpse into his parents’ initial meeting with a fortune teller after his mother finds out she’s pregnant. His father eager to know if the child will be a son, but his mother fears that this is a doomed pairing. This is another loose thread that never gets fully explored. Yung and Chee have so much good chemistry with each other and with Takahashi that it feels wasted to only see snippets of it. Much of their relationship hinges around Boogie, as the glue holding two people together. At one point, Boogie’s mother manages to land a fantastic deal for Boogie that takes him to China instead of the NBA, a deal that makes his money problems go away, but his father is vehemently against it, proclaiming that if he goes back to China, he won’t be able to play for the NBA again.
Why don’t we talk about this? Why don’t we talk about the fact that Boogie’s parents are from Taiwan but identify themselves as Chinese? So few Hollywood films ever talk about the struggle with identity when it comes to Chinese characters who fled to Taiwan after the Kuomingtang was exiled to Taiwan. This is such an important component of modern Chinese history that gets simply glossed over.
On one hand, it’s clear that this is a passion project for Huang. His vibe is all over this film. But on the other, the story falters because it leans in on stories we’ve already seen a thousand times before. There’s nothing new about a young upstart basketball whiz who doesn’t know how to be a team player, there’s nothing new about a basketball rivalry, there’s nothing new about an opposites-attract romance. Cobbled together with painfully cringey dialogue — Boogie has absolutely no game, at one point he stares at his romantic lead’s crotch and says, “You got a pretty vagina.” — Boogie misses the mark.
Unfortunately, Takahashi doesn’t have great chemistry with his romantic lead Taylour Paige, who plays Eleanor, the object of Boogie’s affections. Takahashi is emotionless and unreadable to Paige’s confidence and liveliness. The relationship is emotionally one-sided, with Eleanor bearing the weight of Boogie’s burdens and being more an object of desire than anything else. It’s a shame because it is rare to see interracial couples where one of the partners isn’t white. There are moments when there are hints of sparks between the two actors, but for the most part, the script hinders them more than it helps them.
However, on the flip side, Takahashi’s scenes with Bashar Jackson aka Pop Smoke (rest in peace), who plays Boogie’s rival from Brooklyn, Monk. In the brief moments they get together, the interactions are charged and intense and you can feel both the energy between the two characters. I’m sure this never would have happened but had the film taken a sharp turn and introduced a romance between Monk and Boogie, it might have had more potential than Boogie and Eleanor.
On the directorial front, Huang is decent, if inconsistent. There are moments when the shots are personal — close and lingering, dabbling in a more unconventional style — that are intriguing. But the editing often got in the way of busier scenes, especially the basketball games. A sports movie director, Huang is not. Cutting from the excitement on the court to an overhead view of the game feels like an incredibly confusing decision and doing it multiple times in a row is just bad editing. Oftentimes Boogie feels like a movie straight out of the 2000s, from the dialogue to the cinematography to the plot. I wish that another writer had been brought on to push the story into the contemporary.
And all of this is to say nothing of the Black American experience that borders the circumference of this story but is never explored further. Monk ends up the defacto antagonist or villain, though he has no reason to be by the final arc of the story. For a story that features Black characters as prevalently as Chinese ones, Monk’s character was woefully lacking and effectively a racial stereotype.
In the end, Boogie spoke to me as a Chinese American because of its family dynamic, but that conversation started off strong only to fizzle out by the time it threw in an extraneous basketball plot and a bad script, choosing to leave a mountain of material unmined.
Boogie opens in theaters exclusively on March 5th!