Edited to include more about another ableist moment in the film.
Synopsis: Reunited after 15 years, famous chef Sasha and hometown musician Marcus feel the old sparks of attraction but struggle to adapt to each other’s worlds. (Netflix)
Directed by: Nahnatchka Khan
Written by: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Michael Golamco
Starring: Ali Wong, Randall Park, James Saito, Susan Park, Michelle Buteau, Daniel Dae Kim, Vivian Bang, Keanu Reeves, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Karen Holness
Rom-coms are not my favorite types of films. So I was scared that when I got ready to watch Always Be My Maybe I would be constantly battling my bias against rom-com films. But thankfully, Always Be My Maybe is a fresh take on rom-coms. In fact, to me, the film feels more like a film about life than it is about the genre itself. It doesn’t try to stick in that rom-com box; instead, it reinvents the wheel.
Ali Wong plays Sasha, a famous chef and restaurateur who grew up next her best friend Marcus (Randall Park). She became part of Marcus’ family because her parents were always out working, and it seemed like they were destined to be together forever…until a fateful night drove them apart. They meet over a decade later in different points in their lives, and the hurdles they have to get over in order to rekindle their relationships are themselves.
Let’s state the obvious: This film gives us a new look at the rom-com genre because it stars people who usually don’t get a chance at being in the leads in these films–Asian American actors. Wong and Park are both likable love interests, both with their flaws and achievements out in full force. For me personally, Marcus’ story of being emotionally stuck hits home with me, because I’ve been in that space where a loss or trauma leaves you unable to cope for years afterward. It takes a huge jolt of life hitting you in the face for you to actually wake up and get moving. Such is the case with Marcus.
Sasha, on the other hand, is ambitious and successful, but her ambitions cover the fact that she’s disappointed in her parents’ absenteeism. We never fully understand why her parents left her as a latchkey kid for most of her life. I would assume they were trying to make enough money to care for her, and I wish the film had gone into that conversation.
Dare I say that makes Sasha sound ungrateful, because childhood trauma is still trauma, regardless of what positive reasons parents have for doing certain things. However, as an adult, you’d think she would start to put things in perspective and understand whatever it was that her parents had to go through might have been to give her the life she has now. Long story short, I thought this was a missing point of the story, and I would have loved for the film to dive into that, even if that meant the film had to be a few minutes longer. But on the whole, Sasha is driven and, like a lot of driven women, wants a man who will be able to keep up with her and not hold her back. She’s not going to slow down, childhood trauma or not, and her man can’t be dead weight.
The supporting characters are also all POC with the majority being Asian, such as the members of Marcus’ band (Soni, Yi) and Sasha’s two exes, restaurant manager Brandon Choi (Kim)–who ends up dating Padma Lakshmi in the film–and Keanu Reeves, playing a heightened version of himself. Maybe, Wong was riffing off Twitter’s public adoration of Reeves when she and Park created Reeves’ on-screen characterization, because he’s somehow even more handsome and charismatic than he usually is.
Two of the supporting characters are of the Black diaspora, including Michelle Buteau, who plays Sasha and Marcus’ mutual childhood friend (and Sasha’s assistant) Veronica and Karen Holmes, who plays Kathy, who makes a living as a Diana Ross impersonator. It’s actually through her job as an impersonator that she meets Marcus’ dad Harry (James Saito), and they start dating, much to the shock of Marcus (not for any racist reason, but for a reason I can’t say without spoiling an important part of the film).
So why am I making it a point to point out Kathy and Harry’s relationship? Why is it important that we see characters like Sasha and Marcus, who inhabit two different income brackets and lifestyles? Why is it important that Veronica, a Black gay woman, is Sasha’s friend and names Sasha as her baby’s godmother? Because the film wants to show all sides to Asian-American life. On the whole, the mainstream American viewpoint of Asian-Americans is narrow, limited and filled with stereotypes. However, Asian-American people are, newsflash, people. They date whoever they want, do whatever they want, befriend whoever they want, and can live their lives however they want. We shouldn’t be constraining a section of America to stereotypes. Ditto for the rest of us POC and otherwise marginalized communities. Enough of the stereotypes!
Another point: When was the last time you saw a leading lady wearing glasses? I made a tweet a few days ago about this important fact, and it went through the roof.
Indeed, it means a lot to me that a woman wearing glasses is considered desirable while she’s wearing glasses. In rom-coms, there’s usually some kind of makeover montage that includes the woman getting contacts and ditching her glasses. But some of us don’t want to wear contacts. Me personally? I’m scared of contacts because I have certain phobias about things going in my eyes. So you won’t catch me wearing contacts ever. Does me wearing glasses make me undesirable? Certainly not! So kudos to Wong for embracing the idea of the leading lady being a glasses-wearer.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. But even good films have room for improvement. Disability activist Alice Wong wrote on Twitter about her reaction to a joke about disability parking. The film might have meant it as a joke about thrifty Asian-Americans, but she and others took it as a jab at those who don’t present as outwardly disabled.
Some food for thought. There’s also a song that plays in the film’s opening that has the m-word in it. Even worse, the song plays twice in the film’s first act. Out of all of the ’90s rap songs to choose from, you’d think any other song could have been chosen than this one. Hopefully, if Wong and Park see this, they’ll take it into consideration when making their next film, since we don’t need a film that is meant to uplift actually hurt members of its audience in the process.
But as a whole, Always Be My Maybe is fun. It gives us the type of Asian representation some might have felt was missing in a film like Crazy Rich Asians. Granted, the two films are completely different. But I feel like Always Be My Maybe is much more of a crowd-pleaser and a film less likely to cause the same type of diaspora wars that occurred with CRA. But taking CRA out of it, Always Be My Maybe is a cool film to watch on a weekend when you’re ready to Netflix and chill (or if you’re at home alone, like me, you’re just chilling with Netflix and food). It’s a rom-com that has rewatch potential if you can overlook certain ignorant spots regarding ableism.