Back in 1998, film audiences were calmly entranced by the raw fury of Spike Lee and his love of basketball with one-time Sonics star Ray Allen in tow. He Got Game felt like a moving cinematic dream at times, encompassing the heritage of Brooklyn and points beyond to chronicle the rise of a likely sporting phenom looking not only for personal gain, but to do right by his family, and close romantic partner. That type of film has no need for a sequel. As the game of basketball has evolved, however, the door has certainly swung further open for reinterpretation of the same story, which brings us 23 years forward and roughly 12 miles north. Modern-day Flushing, Queens is the backdrop for a much quieter barrier basher for Asian-American filmmaking. A realm speaking to the heart of first time director, maverick entrepreneur Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat).
Boogie can preeminently be mistaken for a lesser equivalent to the aforementioned, if one is not careful. Though Huang’s nascent approach lends for plenty to distinguish itself from those who’d walked before. Most effectively does a lone marital thread struggling to hold on tether its framing device. And an aging fortuneteller offering naught but simple sage advice. Her clients: a struggling couple, Mr. and Mrs. Chin (Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee) just looking to give their only child the best future possible. Fast forward to the present, and their kid, Alfred (Taylor Takahashi) is a hidden talent just transferred from public school to a valuable prep school whose fundamentals place him at quite the crossroads. He bleeds and sweats the sport of basketball, but his passion leads to constant clashing with his tough-as-nails coach (Domenick Lobardozzi), and a faltered impression with any likely college recruiters.
Dad, a former parolee is the most rigid toward nurturing Alfred’s aspirations. Mom, on the other hand, is determined to set him up for more long-term financial success, specifically viable scholarships with a big eight school. A goal rendered impossible in the wake of Alfred’s behavior. But as Huang’s purely original, if not loosely inspired by the rise of players like Yao Ming or Jeremy Lin, tale unwinds, we get a sense of our lead’s evolution not just as an in-the-making sporting star, but as a rounded human controlling his burning fury.
If nothing else, Boogie is a sufficient study in a character coming of age in a time of personal discovery. Outside the court, he is a radical student in some of his classes. The C-plot wraps him into an AP English studying the inner themes of “Catcher in the Rye”, with Alfred supposedly connecting himself to the novel’s lead, Holden Caulfield. Whether it may an accurate statement remains to be seen. The novel’s minimal presence supposedly allows the mature Alfred to blossom, gaining confidence in his craft, in a fresh romance with classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige), and relationships with one good friend (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr), and one nasty enemy, a rival star point from across the island (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson).
While most of the elements in Huang’s screenplay invoke some reminiscent feelings of excitement with a particular cultural backbone, just how it’s all aligned together makes it an unevenly balanced potpourri. The theme of family stress is perhaps its most consistent, highlighting a parental couple never agreeing on the right path for their son. And yet, there’s far from enough to be written for that idea, even as a hotshot manager (Mike Moh) swoops in to settle Mrs. Chin’s nerves and give Alfred a chance in a professional league outside of college eligibility. Neither is there much to promote cultural identity without appearing overly corny or bogus. Mr. Chin tries to reinforce that while inadvertently pulling his marriage apart, but never long enough to sharpen the film’s focus any more than the straightforward big game sequences do.
Bottom line, what should be emphasized more to build up Boogie’s character profile is only evident in smaller pieces as opposed to wider swaths that interweave through the film’s rather brisk runtime. For a crass, unapologetic comedy that can at least do its respective sport justice, knowing it’s been not that long since Ben Affleck’s The Way Back sustained basketball’s cinematic presence, it’s somewhat rough around the edges. We as an audience don’t reach any serious level of emotional depth warranted by the genre. Huang knows where his comfort zone is, and he simply cannot escape it. The excuse of him being a first-timer in the director’s chair just may not fly too well here. Leaning toward the comical, the crude here, that’s somewhat acceptable, until the arrow must swing elsewhere for the script to flourish.
Where the film succeeds best could be with the aesthetic its presents on screen, and the actors Huang has recruited. It’s still New York with a spicy Asian zing, at least for the eyes when the plot falls short; props to DoP Brett Jutkiewicz (Ready or Not) for parlaying Huang’s vision without rendering it muted or faded, and finding a vibrant color palette out of an otherwise quiet neighborhood for the screen. And to Takahashi, the relative newcomer who may have a strong career ahead, if he continues to find the right roles to expand on. Mr. Moh deserves an equal kudos as the mild antagonistic element with too much business sense. However, it had to be Ms. Chee who stole the show, on a personal level. She takes the mama bear role a bit too seriously, and in turn carries Huang’s work thru to its natural conclusion.
Had Huang focused more on story flow, allowing for more screen time with those around Alfred, particularly the parents and their persistent battle, I knew I’d have dug Boogie with greater conviction, much like that compassionate heritage he was unafraid to make mainstream on television. On film, however, it’s like he forgot how to shepherd a capable blending of drama with comedy. Possible jitters notwithstanding, it’s not the strongest debut in a new arena for an otherwise talented storyteller. The cast puts in a little extra effort to compensate, but even then, that can’t help a film that appears more troubling than triumphant.
It’s nothing like what Spike could’ve done. And yet when its act appears concise, in brief segments, there’s plenty to enjoy when the intent stays on though-provoking yarn of character evolution. Boogie promises so much, but ends with so few of them fulfilled. The bigger b-ball fans around might be unfazed. I’m sure I, like Mr. Huang, could’ve done much better. (C-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Boogie opens in theaters wherever open this weekend. Do heed your theater’s and the CDC’s safety guidelines if you choose to embark to a theater this weekend. Rated R for language throughout including sexual references, and some drug use; 89 minutes.