First and foremost, Shortcomings is a tour de force of one man’s hypocrisy and dramatic irony. Asian-American filmmaker Randall Park makes his feature directorial debut chronicling the frustrating life of Ben (Justin H. Min), a failed filmmaker who lazily enjoys Criterion Collection films, thinks he’s better than everyone and everything else, and has a fetish for white women—the blonder, the better. But Ben is dating Miko (Ally Maki), an entrepreneurial film professional who decides to capitalize on a supposed opportunity in New York that could advance her career. The film quickly sets up multiple plot threads in just the first 20 minutes, establishing Miko’s desire for Asian-American representation and progress within the entertainment industry, her politicized stance against Ben’s apparent sexual preferences, and our protagonist’s desire for something new in his life, all points that more or less converge into a unique independent romantic comedy.
During the first act, we realize Ben is not the best person, but it is not immediately obvious what the movie’s point is. Ben skates by as the manager of a flailing cinema in Berkley, California, and immediately jumps at the chance to flirt with the pretty, white, blond woman, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), that inquires about a job there. Professional and personal ethics be damned, Ben begins to date Autumn casually once Miko leaves for New York (after having gaslit her). In the meantime, he confides in his best friend, Alice (a spectacular Sherry Cola), who also has issues with dating and commitment.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Other events cause rifts in Ben’s personal life, usually caused by his fragility and lack of compassion for others, but there seems to be some hope for him to realize his flaws and win Miko back. The film ultimately becomes more about accepting that we can be better and learning from our worst moments, a lesson that Park imparts admirably. Still, the most enjoyable aspect of Shortcomings is the road the viewer takes to come to that understanding. This element is highlighted particularly well in Ben’s relationships with others, as he continually fetishizes the non-Asian women in his life and simultaneously criticizes white men and women for their relationships with Asians. His inability to see his hypocrisy is a wildly fascinating character defect to observe and one that logically would undergo scrutiny and change during his arc. However, viewers may not be happy with the result of Ben’s attempts to gain self-awareness and happiness by the film’s end, which is either a misstep by Park and writer Adrian Tomine or a provocative decision that merits further examination.
Somebody jokingly labeled Shortcomings as a “filmbro bio-pic,” in which this young, seemingly intelligent man with a wealth of potential comes face-to-face with his irreconcilable ego and its subsequent consequences, and while that description is a bit garish, it is also not entirely inaccurate. Watching Ben navigate his romantic romps with awkward enthusiasm while subtly throwing around tone-deaf remarks about interracial attractions and connections is anger-inducing, with occasional shreds of joy peppered in by Cola’s Alice, with her charming wit and much more successful romantic endeavors. Despite Ben’s progression or lack thereof, Park produces a particular vulnerability in watching this tremendously flawed character travel toward an uncertain and potentially bleak future. This element of Shortcomings is appreciable in a primarily safe indie rom-com genre.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
A potential shortfall is the lack of focus on Ben’s filmmaking career and passion for auteurism and similar subjects, which appear to only establish his “filmbro” personality without adding much else to the film outside of some fun easter eggs for other cinephiles. Though these characteristics offer some relatability to the character as an aspiring filmmaker relegated to watching the works of cinema icons, they could have provided more to the film as a whole. And as a white man, I cannot speak to the relatability of the Asian diaspora highlighted here and the characters’ interpersonal relations with other races. However, Shortcomings feels like it barely scratches the surface of these intriguing topics outside of its characters’ hypocrisies. Regardless, the movie is magnetic, chaotic, and ultimately delightful to dissect. Park hits the ground running, showcases his leads excellently, and shows a lot of prowess that he will undoubtedly refine with future efforts.
Shortcomings is now playing in limited theaters