Brilliant new Netflix movie is a breath of fresh rom-com air
Netflix loves to crank out rom-coms as part of its original movies slate.
For the most part, they're forgettable. Occasionally, they're offensive to any movie-watcher with a modicum of discernment (ahem, The Kissing Booth). Rarely are they worth paying attention to (Set It Up and To All the Boys are notable exceptions).
Always Be My Maybe is definitely worth paying attention to.
For one thing, it's notable because it has an impeccable pedigree, and not just starring no-names who are only "Netflix famous".
Written by Ali Wong (Baby Cobra), Randall Park (Fresh Off the Boat) and Michael Golamco (Please Stand By), and starring Wong and Park in the leads, Always Be My Maybe is a fresh, charming and laugh-out-loud funny rom-com.
Sasha (Wong) and Marcus (Park) grew up as neighbours and best friends in San Francisco. After a falling out when they were 18 years old, Sasha moved on to college and a career as a famous chef in Los Angeles.
Marcus stayed put in his family home, still playing small clubs with his high school band, smoking weed and helping his dad (James Saito) out with the family aircon business.
When Sasha's fiance Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim) asks to take a six-month break, the timing works as she's heading back to San Fran for two months to open a new restaurant.
Through some conniving from her friend Vanessa (Michelle Buteau), Sasha finds herself face-to-face with Marcus again for the first time in 16 years.
The sparks are still there, but their lives and priorities are so different.
So far, so familiar. Always Be My Maybe, on the surface, seems like it could be any other generic rom-com, but the writing here is as sharp as Daniel Dae Kim's impossibly chiselled cheekbones, and the story it tells is specific to these characters.
One of the obstacles - because of course there are obstacles - to a Sasha and Marcus happily ever after is when she meets a love interest (Keanu Reeves) at a wrap party.
The Reeves character perfectly taps into the Matrix star's public persona of being this Zen but weird guy. There's a ridiculous double date at a fancypants restaurant where your veal comes with headphones and audio of the cow who gave its life, and then an ill-advised game of Truth or Dare.
The Reeves sequence, while a little long in terms of story momentum, is wee-your-pants funny, especially if you saw John Wick 3 in the last couple of weeks.
Always Be My Maybe, whose title is indeed derived from that Mariah Carey song, has an easy flow, and longtime friends Wong and Park have great chemistry together. They're a couple you want to root for, and that can't be said for a lot of rom-coms.
It is, of course, significant this is an American movie with two Asian-American leads, directed by Nahnatchka Khan, an American-Pakistani woman best known for creating Fresh Off the Boat and Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23.
It won't get the same attention as the groundbreaking Crazy Rich Asians, which had a splashy cinematic release, and by virtue of CRA being first.
But Always Be My Maybe is a better movie in terms of its writing and performances. It's not as flashy and it's much more an American story than CRA, but it also has a cultural specificity to it that's very much a second-generation immigrant story.
Sasha and Marcus have both grown up in the US and absorbed that culture, but there are the little touches familiar to all Asian diaspora kids - taking off your shoes at the front door, rubbing together disposable chopsticks to rid the splinters and eating Pocky Stick biscuits out of that red cardboard packaging.
The movie doesn't draw attention to those little things, but their presence rings loudly for the audiences who will find resonance in them.
There's a recurring bit about Marcus's mother's kimchi soup that's particularly emotional, connecting cultural heritage to second-generation kids.
Even the supporting cast are all actors from culturally diverse backgrounds who, in addition to Dae Kim, Saito and Buteau, include Vivian Bang, Charlyne Yi, Karan Soni, Susan Park and Lyrics Born. Between them, they have parents who hail from Korea, Haiti, Jamaica, Japan, India, the Philippines, China and Mexico.
In an inversion of normal casting practices, caucasian actors are reduced to characters playing service people. With the exception of Reeves (who actually has a Chinese-Hawaiian background on his father's side), Casey Wilson is the only named white character as interior designer Chloe who has about five minutes of scene time.
For all that, Always Be My Maybe isn't just here to be a representation touchstone. It's proof you can tell these stories, these American stories, from a different perspective with authenticity and still have it be universal.
Because it's also just a rom-com that works really well. It's well-paced, the performances are great, the dialogue is witty, and its female lead is unapologetically herself, without feeling like she has to curtail her ambition and drive to an insecure man.
Always Be My Maybe is the best rom-com Netflix has released, and one of the best rom-coms we've had in recent years.
Always Be My Maybe is available to stream on Netflix now.
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