It is not easy to like Boogie (Taylor Takahashi) in Boogie. His game with the ladies can be so invasive and crude that he comes off as a grade-A tosser. His play on the basketball court can be so solo he defines “teammate” as “me, mate.” His consideration for non-sport areas, like school and family, is paltry enough he seems to only be attending them to raise brows and press buttons.
But, and this is worth remembering — and most likely what director-writer Eddie Huang (who also cameos as the lead’s uncle Jackie) would like you to note — these traits of his are products of nurture rather than nature. Boogie isn’t receptive in school because he says The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t take white privilege into account. At home he gets reminded that his mater (Pamelyn Chee) and pater (Perry Yung) determine his life choices; it is unsure if he realises that to them, this is less about control and more about them trying to ensure harmony. A flashback shows his parents (Claire Hsu and Ren Hsieh, playing younger versions) meeting a fortune teller (Jessica Huang, the filmmaker’s mother) who said their zodiac signs make them incompatible, and should a union happen, they will conceive a difficult child.
Boogie wants the world to know it’s him, not Jesus (the film’s dunk on Jeremy Lin), that is behind the fiery hoop game. Women either can hang with Alfred Chin — pardon, he prefers his “stripper name” Boogie — or they cannot. He will not be the model minority. All these features give Boogie the grit and the pride of being unvarnished, effectively distancing it from the hit show based on Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, which surely to him is absolutely for the better. You’re meant to laugh at Boogie’s pre-sex concern about his penis size. Home hosts the hardest slaps and deepest verbal cuts. Collectivism can sod off. Huang makes it very clear: this is not another generic coming-of-age story — this is the coming-of-age story of a Chinese-Taiwanese-American living in New York City’s Flushing.
This refreshing specificity validates Boogie’s rough-and-tough quality. It enlivens the environs of the character, as captured by Brett Jutkiewicz’s lensing or as scored by the urban playlist. More importantly, it reflects the Asian-American experience that is unpopular in various life arenas but hews closer to reality, that immigrants or children of immigrants are automatically set to be the next “success story” (itself a notion more demeaning than it sounds). Boogie shares the playground with 2020’s Tigertail in that sense, though Alan Yang’s film settles for the sandbox, while Huang’s prefers the swings.
And it’s a choice that create both powerful and imperfect moves. The prodigious nature of Boogie’s ballgame opens with refreshing, growing fissures with the coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) and the mum-assigned manager Melvin (Mike Moh) but closes with the neatness of most sport dramas. The character’s competition with another top player, Monk (the late rapper Pop Smoke, in his acting debut), is underdeveloped despite the surefooted construction of it as the one solution that would gorgeously satisfy all parties (Boogie sustaining his excellence, Mr. Chin realizing the son-in-NBA dream, and Mrs. Chin finally seeing returns from her son’s sport).
The romance between Boogie and his classmate Elanor (Taylour Paige) struggles to be convincing, when it’s questionable at best and filler at worst, not to mention brushing elbows with the anti-Black beast that unfortunately is prevalent in Asian circles. In all these areas, Takahashi, who prior to this acting role was Huang’s assistant, shows that he needs to work on making his emotions more malleable and remembering to feed off the other actor’s energy — so ultimately he can portray an individual, rather than the fire within one. For a project both close to Huang’s, and many Asian-Americans’ reality, an imperfectly executed character is a disappointing element. Still, the pursuit of authenticity (or for a course correction) behind the frame is palpable, even with the apparent rough patches and tough spots.
Boogie, as a result, can be an effort to tango with. But take a chance and you’ll come to realise it has much to offer to the Asian-American cinematic representation forum — as much as it is a notable-enough showcase of Huang’s voice.
Boogie is currently available on Hulu in the US.