Directed by Nahnatchka Khan
Starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, James Saito
Netflix can take comfort that Always Be My Maybe one-ups Crazy Rich Asians, that other Asian-American romantic-comedy it famously lost to Warner Bros in a bidding war, in one significant aspect: It brings the tricky question of assimilation home.
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Where Crazy Rich Asians goes to an exotic locale half a world away via private jet, Always Be My Maybe stays grounded on American soil with the story of Sasha Tran (co-writer and standup comedian Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (co-writer and longtime comedic ensemble player Randall Park, getting his first shot at leading man), childhood friends who grew up together in San Francisco, lost touch after a spectacularly awkward first-time tryst in the back of Marcus’ beat-up Corolla, and then reconnect a decade-and-a-half later.
Sasha is a latchkey kid who grows up to be a celebrity chef, thanks in part to the inspiration provided by the kimchi jjigae cooked by Marcus’ dearly departed mom; Marcus is a talented rapper who fronts a band in their neighborhood bar, running an air-conditioning business with his dad (James Saito) and content to stay ziplocked in his small corner of San Francisco. When the pair reconnect and discover that they still have that spark, a new conundrum arises: How to make the prospect of a romantic reunion work when they have such wildly different lifestyles and priorities.
Always Be My Maybe is hilarious and a joy to watch, partly because Wong’s standup experience makes her a keen observer of her unique circumstances. (She tells her longtime friend and assistant Veronica, a light-skinned African-American lesbian played by Michelle Buteau—how’s that for representation?—that her parents would freak out at the prospect of getting limo pickup from the airport because nothing gets their dander up more than the idea of tipping.) It also helps that Wong and Park have such amazing chemistry, her eye-rolling, deadpan delivery bouncing off his perpetual befuddlement. And of course, Always Be My Maybe isn’t above some stunt casting, featuring a cameo from a newly resurrected Hollywood star eager to poke fun at himself.
Wong and Park, who co-wrote the screenplay with Filipino-Chinese-American playwright Michael Golamco, have said in interviews that they wanted Always Be My Maybe to be the Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally. It is obviously more than that, in the same way that Crazy Rich Asians is more than the Asian-American version of Meet the Parents. But where Crazy Rich Asians amplified the otherness of its premise, Always Be My Maybe does something with a higher degree of difficulty: It offers up a message of commonality without sacrificing the specificity that makes the story something that needs to be told.
The details may be throwaway, but they are always telling, providing context and counterpoint. Sometimes the detail is subtle, as when Sasha spills the tea to Marcus about the freaky sex she had the previous night—something all longtime friends do—in the middle of an Asian food market. And sometimes it comes to the forefront. During a crucial confrontation, Marcus mocks Sasha for the pretentiousness of “elevated” Asian cuisine, saying that Asian cuisine should stay true to its roots and be served in big-ass bowls. Sasha turns around and blasts Marcus for his mockery, asking him why she is being penalized for aiming higher. The whip-smart script and the unobtrusive direction by Nahnatchka Khan (Wong and Park’s big boss in the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat) assiduously make both sides of the argument without breaking a sweat, highlighting the warring impulses of assimilation and pride in heritage that exists on both sides of the immigrant experience in the funniest and least strident of ways. Always Be My Maybe should be a definite addition to your playlist.
Always Be My Maybe is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photographs from Netflix