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film review

Taylor Takahashi stars as Alfred ‘Boogie’ Chin in Boogie.Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features

  • Boogie
  • Written and directed by Eddie Huang
  • Starring Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige and Pop Smoke
  • Classification R; 89 minutes

Boogie has been years in the making. While that’s true of any film, this one has been long promised by first-time writer-director Eddie Huang. Best known as a chef, TV personality and author (his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, was adapted into a hit ABC sitcom), Huang has fought forever to see more varied portrayals of Asian-Americans (and Canadians, by extension) in popular culture that go beyond model minorities and immigrants done good.

Boogie is, finally, Huang’s cinematic realization of his dream, a debut filmmaker’s warts and all.

Huang tells the coming-of-age story of Alfred Chin (or Boogie, “my stripper name,” as he informs his English teacher). The son of hardscrabble Taiwanese immigrants, Alfred (newcomer Taylor Takahashi) dreams of playing in the NBA. It’s within his reach after transferring to a prep school where he can show off his burgeoning on-court skills to college scouts. The only things standing in his way are Monk, New York’s top prospect (the late rapper Pop Smoke), and a little thing called life.

Mr. Chin (Perry Yung), who has been in and out of jail, neatly sums up the obstacles ahead for Boogie, his son, and Boogie, the film: “No one believes in an Asian basketball player. It’s a joke. We can cook, clean, count real good. But anything else, we’re picked last.”

Boogie breathes with a much different energy when writer and director Eddie Huang turns his lens to the more universal foibles of awkward young adulthood.Nicole Rivelli/Focus Features

Lines like that pepper the script. “Chinese people could be so much more if people didn’t reduce us to beef and broccoli,” Boogie explains to his girlfriend Eleanor (Taylour Paige) as he tries to reconcile his cultural challenges with hers as a Black woman. Huang persuasively navigates such sensitive exchanges, but mostly through trailer-friendly proclamations. They make their points – even if too on the nose, this reviewer thinks them true – but they seem to emanate from the writer’s autobiography, rather than the lives of his characters. This is rendered stark when Huang himself plays Alfred’s uncle Jackie, who intones: “You don’t have it like these Americans, but you got more than we do. That’s what we sacrificed for.”

Boogie breathes with a much different energy when Huang turns his lens to the more universal foibles of awkward young adulthood. With sobering critiques of identity front and centre elsewhere, he handles potentially uneasy portraits of Alfred and Eleanor’s interracial romance with aplomb, simultaneously presenting their coupling as just a fact of modern Gen Z dating, while also infusing more intimate scenes with cultural self-deprecation that reveals a sweetness at the film’s heart.

Huang also takes care with domestic violence, a crucial part of his personal experience that’s mapped onto the psyche of Alfred’s family (including Mrs. Chin, played by Pamelyn Chee). He points to Good Will Hunting as an influence, and here he works as deftly as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did to balance traumatic physical conflict with conflicting feelings of familial love and filial piety.

The basketball scenes are some of the best in recent memory. Alfred is subtly depicted as a full-hustle defensive phenom, an apt scouting report for someone who’s spent a lifetime fighting against type. But for all the revealing scenes of Alfred’s inner life, a disappointment is one-dimensional arch-rival Monk, who is nothing more than a final boss left to Black stereotypes.

The basketball scenes in Boogie are some of the best in recent memory.David Giesbrecht/Focus Features

What Huang accomplishes with Boogie is a welcome addition to a growing canon of mainstream North American films created by and starring Asians. While more tender-hearted stories have garnered recent acclaim, it’s refreshing to see room for everyone, including Huang’s world of hardened, foul-mouthed, hip hop-loving characters, who would understand the ironic use of Mr. Chin by reggae DJ Yellowman.

One of the final scenes in Boogie is a tight, lingering closeup on Alfred’s eyes, and all that Asian eyes entail. Huang demands we see him.

Boogie opens in select Canadian theatres March 5

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.