Director Eddie Huang is a name you know but likely are unfamiliar with. Huang was first introduced to me through his show on Viceland, Huang’s World, by a friend who worked on its post-production. Huang is funny and draws you in with his personality, something that ABC obviously noticed when they bought the rights to his memoir, Fresh off the Boat, which is supposed to be the sitcom version about Eddie’s life growing up. Though a producer, Huang had been an outspoken critic of the show and now gets the chance to tell a story about Asian-American culture without the roadblocks of network executives, the way he wants, as the writer and director of Boogie.
Huang focuses on the cultural aspects of growing up with the duality of the culture you’re raised in versus the traditions you’re born into, using the young Alfred “Boogie” Chen (Taylor Takahashi) as the person caught between both worlds. Boogie is a talented high-school basketball player who dreams of going pro and solving all of his parents’ problems by making it big in the NBA. His father (Perry Yung), pushes him destructively toward basketball like it’s a cure-all for his and his wife’s (Pamelyn Chee) struggling marriage and insurmountable debt. Boogie doesn’t feel this turmoil like most, turning it inward but seemingly finding immense confidence instead of pressure, taking out his frustrations on whatever or whoever opposes him at the moment.
Starting at a new school, Boogie vies for the chance to beat Queens’s basketball phenom Monk (Jackson). This becomes the film’s central focus, that all Boogie’s problems can be solved by winning a basketball game and proving himself against Monk in order to become the (pardon the pun) king of Queens. Through trash talk, constant practice, managing a relationship, and family drama, Boogie ends up feeling a lot like the film 8 Mile, only having traded rap music for basketball.
The film suggests this overt precociousness in Boogie as he challenges his classmate’s views on Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, finding him to be the whining windbag adults typically do character. However, Boogie acts with the utmost immaturity when first meeting Eleanor (Taylour Paige), opting for a shocking opening line that definitely earns a reaction. Maybe that’s the point, but it feels a bit uneven watching a character go from such uncouth shallowness to this sudden depth without some catalyst, especially when Boogie is meant to be bull-headed. Disrespecting his basketball teammates, clashing with his coach, and denigrating his mother’s realist notions about his future, Boogie is set up to resemble that. Through his pursuit of Eleanor, he presents his depth more naturally as Eleanor brings out the best in him.
Thematically the film has a lot of tenacity, ostensibly acknowledging Asian culture and traditions, while also making the case for small changes too. Respects are paid in traditions such as the youngest at the table pouring tea, while events such as Michael Chang’s rise to glory at the 1989 French Open are revered for the stride it made for Asian-Americans in this country. But it’s in the respect given to Boogie’s heritage that allows for changes to be made, only striking glasses in a cheers fashion with Eleanor in a restaurant because she cares for him and he for her, a new tradition based in respect for the old ways with a new friend.
The film doesn’t shy away from systemic arguments either and seems to be at its best when challenging stereotypes and discrimination. One of the most agreeable changes the film asks for has nothing to do with Asian culture at all, proposing that Americans open their minds to other cultures’ experiences. When arguing over The Catcher in the Rye with friend Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Boogie brings up an excellent point: there are not a lot of culturally relevant books on reading lists that speak to the experiences of minorities. The film proclaiming that this makes it extremely hard for many children and young adults to form connections with reading and seems like a good way to start making the next generation more accepting than the current one.
Boogie’s arc as a character never comes through completely, living selfishly on the court as though he’s the only one that matters until his expectations are forced into compromise. His hubris, which has not been lost on his teammates, coach or parents, is only turned into humility through Eleanor, but as the film flows into the final scenes Boogie’s journey somehow misses in both emotion and communicative catharsis.
I really wanted to like Boogie, even in its unpolished “rough around the edges” state. Eddie Huang has put a lot of love into this film and you can see it. Though the acting isn’t very good, it’s never unwatchable either and I’d argue that Taylour Paige shows the makings of a young Regina King, someone whose work I’ve held in high regard for a long time, and it will be interesting to watch her make a name for herself through future features. If I focus on more technical aspects, Boogie shines in a few areas; good cinematography, wonderfully colored and lit, as well as a killer soundtrack thanks to the posthumous efforts of the film’s Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson. The film really shows the crew making a tremendous effort to make it and that is a fantastic accomplishment even if the feature is far from perfect.
Boogie is now playing in select theaters and on VOD.