Randall Park was a struggling actor when he first encountered Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel “Shortcomings” in 2007. The story focused on a twentysomething Japanese American man named Ben, who is trying to find himself in the Bay Area along with his girlfriend Miko and best friend Alice, who is a lesbian. They are all flawed, complex and figuring things out, sometimes inelegantly. Park was obsessed.
“I remember thinking, gosh this would make an amazing movie,” Park said in an interview. “And in my dreams it was like, ‘Oh I’d love to play Ben.’ ”
It would take about 15 years for “Shortcomings” to become a feature. By then Park had, in his words, aged out of the role. But he got a cooler gig out of it: Feature film director. “Shortcomings” had its world premiere Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, where it is playing in competition, with Sherry Cola as Alice, Ally Maki as Miko and Justin H. Min as Ben.
“I love the overlap between me and Alice, the queerness, the Asianness and just like the loudness, the kind of recklessness almost, you know? The obnoxiousness and also the unapologetic ness,” Cola said Sunday in Park City, Utah. “Of course she’s flawed, she’s imperfect. But she kind of owns it, and she wants to do better for herself.”
Park had known Cola and Maki prior to casting the movie. Casting Ben was a bigger challenge, he said, because he is a difficult, sometimes unlikeable character.
“There’s are all the shiny things about him, the opinions and the tirades and and the snarky comments. But there has to be a deep vulnerability about him and a sadness and a humanity that people could identify with,” Park said. “We saw a lot of great actors, and a lot of those actors were my friends and people who I really wanted to work with. But Justin just gave the most interesting performance. There’s a very human quality about him that made him really watchable.”
For Min, it felt like a revelation to play a three-dimensional character with nuances and contradictions.
“It’s not a type of role that I’ve often seen for myself or got to play,” Min said. “It feels like for most of my career, they wanted us to play one thing. “
Park, who has directed episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat,” was influenced by some of Noah Baumbach’s films like “Frances Ha,” and Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” for “Shortcomings.”
“I always wanted to see a movie like that where Asian American characters are just kind of hanging out in diners, walking in the city and talking about complex things and going through, you know, life stuff,” Park said. "One of the reasons why (“Shorcomings”) resonated with me so much was because I saw a little bit of myself in all of the characters. It felt just so real to me.”
He also has a brief cameo in the film, as a waiter. But that was less a product of him wanting to be in the movie than the nature of an independent film made during COVID-19. For Min, getting to act against Park, and seeing him get Cola to break character and laugh, was one of the most fun days on set.
The film, which is up for acquisition at the festival, begins with Ben and Miko watching a film on the big screen that is a not-so-subtle reference to “Crazy Rich Asians.” Afterwards they get into a debate about its merits. Miko loves it. Ben, who considers himself a cinephile, doesn’t. And they discuss the idea of representation for representation’s sake.
“We were so excited to have that scene because we’ve all had those conversations,” Min said. “There are Asian-Americans who loved Crazy Rich Asians and a lot of Asian-Americans who hated it. But at the time when it came out, because it was such an important, significant moment for us, a lot of people who might not have vibed to it weren’t really able to talk about it openly.”
It also perfectly sets the stage for what’s to come in “Shortcomings,” as the characters grapple with their identities.
“It’s more of a symbolic thing versus a pointed reference,” Cola said. “It’s not just about that film. It’s about all the big films that have succeeded in the mainstream that have allowed us to tell this kind of story. Starting the movie with that kind of like big-picture thing and then going microscopically into this slice of life, opinionated dynamic I think is really fun.”
Park, who loves “Crazy Rich Asians,” empathizes with the burden to represent everybody.
“A movie like ours, it’s about the margins of the margins in some ways,” Park said. “It’s a complex community. Nothing is monolithic. We all have different opinions, different tastes and different ways of seeing the world. And I think that’s what excites me so much about this story is that there’s an authenticity to it and a specificity to it that makes it different.”