Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) needs an athletic scholarship. His father (Perry Yung) is an ex-con and doesn’t have a steady income, leaving his mother (Pamelyn Chee) to sit in their Queens apartment and agonize over a stack of bills that are past due. The marital strain is palpable, with the family’s hopes pinned on Boogie being scouted for college basketball. But for as much as the colleges assure him that their doors are open to him, they’re not offering to pay his way. He’s an Asian-American in a field that doesn’t take those who look like him very seriously, and the only place where they are taken seriously is also the only one that’s offering the Chins money that they wouldn’t have to borrow: China, where a league has already made him an offer and his identity wouldn’t be cause for such skepticism.
The pull between two cultures—the prospect of the only accepting place being one that’s comparatively unfamiliar—is the most potentially fraught conflict in writer-director Eddie Huang’s Boogie. But that conflict only really comes into focus late in the film, which mostly toils in routine coming-of-age terrain; in an obnoxious early scene, Boogie’s English lit teacher (Steve Coulter) even defines the term “coming of age” for the class before assigning them to read The Catcher in the Rye. There’s romance, too, with a black classmate, Eleanor (Taylour Paige), who initially thinks little of Boogie but is eventually won over by his persistence and sense of humor, which includes such come-ons as “You’ve got a pretty vagina.”
Boogie is the sort of hot-headed guy who’s good at what he does and knows it—a confidence that you may wish had rubbed off on the film. For one, Huang’s screenplay is clumsy in its bluntness, as the characters—including an uncle with irritable bowel syndrome who’s played by Huang himself—are prone to giving tidy speeches about how Asians in America are outsiders, and how they’re kept down by the roles prescribed for them. But these speeches feel disconnected from the rest of the film because Huang never gives potent or even coherent expression to that conflict. There’s little sense of Boogie as an outsider given that all the kids in his class laugh at his jokes, while girls keep remarking that he’s attractive. The most visible form of racism that Boogie faces here is when Eleanor’s friend, Alissa (Alexa Mareka), relates his body to tasty Chinese food while checking him out at the gym. He fits in just fine, ostracized only by whatever distant entity doles out athletic scholarships.
Admittedly, part of the problem with Boogie is endemic to the Asian-American experience that’s clearly on Huang’s mind. In lieu of many external expressions of racism and general alienation that would be conducive to a visual medium like film, the audience gets a lot of internal turmoil, of characters chafing against the assumptions of a “model minority” who’s seen as docile, desexualized, and, well, good at math. Prejudice in Boogie is meant to be understood predominantly as a systemic and faceless force. That’s certainly realistic, but the film’s characters hardly possess a sense of a history or an interior life to adequately convey racism’s psychic toll. We get precious little insight about Boogie’s parents beyond their squabbling over what they want for their son, whose personality doesn’t extend far beyond basketball and being a bit of a class clown. There’s simply not enough context for their stations in life or how their personal defenses developed in the face of a quiet ostracization.
The closest thing to tangible opposition is Monk (the late Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson), the best local high school player whose defeat will (somehow) clinch a scholarship for Boogie. He’s a caricature who exists to do things like make rude comments about Eleanor and cackle villainously when he, a black boy, knocks down an Asian player on the court. There’s some late drama with Mr. Chin’s parole, too, in a failed bid for urgency that only makes the film feel more contrived, for emphasizing how the scholarship conflict doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: If borrowing money for college would be such a ruinous proposition for the Chins, surely any source of money is good enough, even from a Chinese league that was hardly their first choice.
In one scene, Boogie remarks that he doesn’t see himself in The Catcher in the Rye. A film like this, then, is meant to be a corrective, a contribution to the minuscule canon of cinema portraying the underrepresented Asian-American experience. But Boogie stands little chance at resonating given its fuzzy and uncertain depiction of Asian-American identity and its accompanying anxieties. In Huang’s film, the clearest representation of feeling disconnected from one’s culture is a couple of throwaway lines about how Boogie’s IBS-stricken uncle can’t always eat the food of his homeland. In other words, the most coherent expression of inner turmoil here lies in a peripheral character’s difficulty having a bowel movement.