ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE
Starring: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Michelle Buteau
Writers: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Michael Golamco
Director: Nahnatchka Khan
Studio: Good Universe
What do you get when two close friends write a movie for themselves to star in? You could very easily get something pretty lame and self-indulgent. But if the two friends are talented professionals Ali Wong and Randall Park, you get a smart, charming movie that breaks from stereotypes even while following a comfortable romcom formula.
Sasha Tran (Wong, American Housewife, Baby Cobra) and Marcus Kim (Park, Fresh Off the Boat, Aquaman) are childhood best friends. Sasha, a true ’90s latchkey kid, spends most of her time next door at Marcus’s house where his mom teaches her how to cook, and she gets the kind of parental attention that she lacks from her home. After awkwardly losing their virginity to each other at age 18 in the back of a Corolla, they don’t see each other for 15 years. Sasha, now a celebrity chef, comes back to San Francisco to open a new restaurant and finds Marcus doing air conditioning installation with his dad.
What follows is the pretty standard romcom formula, but with some important differences. The movie uses the “one that got away” formula as a scaffold to explore issues of identity, what happens when the people we loved change (or don’t), and who we let down our walls for.
Asian identity is a central theme in the movie, without making it an “Asian romcom.” The characters are Asian without their Asian-ness being their sole defining trait. In fact, there is no one single “Asian-ness” here. Asian culture is not a monolith but is allowed to exist as distinct cultures even under the umbrella of “Asian American.” Sasha is Chinese; Marcus is Korean. They each grow up with different aspects of the first generation immigrant experience.
They have different experiences as adult people of color living in America; Sasha as famous and ambitious, Marcus as talented but invisible. There are experiences that would be easily relatable to other people of color living in America. Young Marcus’s fear of having to bring Korean soup leftovers to school for lunch. Sasha getting called out for code-switching when she uses her “phone voice.” Marcus’s disdain for Sasha’s haute cuisine causes him to accuse her of making Asian food for white people.
Always Be My Maybe doesn’t shy away from showing the reality of the Asian American experience and the immigrant family experience in general. Sasha’s parents are too busy running their store to be around for her; in fact, there aren’t any scenes with young Sasha and her parents at all. They only exist as a voice on an answering machine giving Sasha after school instructions. We finally see them when Sasha is an adult after her parents have sold the store and retired. They’ve made it, now have time and money, but Sasha is left resentful for having had to raise herself.
Wong and Park have the true chemistry of good friends, which they are in real life. It makes the awkwardness of their reintroduction to each other and working through the boundaries of their new relationship feel completely realistic without being cringy for the audience, which is too often the case.
The other excellent chemistry is between Wong and Michelle Buteau (Isn’t it Romantic) who plays Veronica, Sasha’s best friend. The best friend to the female lead is usually just there for exposition and to fail the Bechdel test, but in this case, she works as a character all on her own. Wong and Buteau play off each other so effortlessly that I would totally watch a movie starring them together. Veronica gets some great lines, the kind of self-deprecating jokes fans know from Wong’s stand-up, and manages to pull them off as witty and snappy, rather than as a tired “sassy” best friend trope.
While managing to avoid being self-indulgent, this movie is made to play to Wong’s and Park’s strengths. Wong gets to make use of her unique, powerful voice as a stand-up comic in both the writing and delivery of her character, although in a much tamer version. It didn’t make me laugh to tears like her comedy specials, but the jokes are still easily identifiable as her style. Park gets to be a playful, charming character who can also spit hot fire on the mic with his character’s band, Hello Panic (including three original songs that are pretty great, especially the last one).
The movie also boasts some fun cameos. Keanu Reeves, himself part Chinese, has a very memorable, laugh-out-loud, cameo that looks like it was genuinely fun for everyone involved to film. Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O, Lost) was underused as a one-dimensional, unsuitable fiancé who only exists to be an inciting incident for Sasha to start dating again. There are others, but I won’t spoil the fun of discovering them.
With a completely diverse cast and independent, boss female characters that turn some well-worn romcom tropes on their heads (which I won’t spoil here), Always Be My Maybe is a fresh take on an old genre. It shows that films can depict various life experiences and still give us the warm blanket comfort that we look for in a romantic comedy.