The highly-anticipated Netflix movie Always Be My Maybe just came out on May 31, 2019 on the streaming service and in select theaters across the United States. It had gathered much attention and excitement throughout the Asian-American community, and unsurprisingly so. The movie stars not just one, but two, Asian-American leads in a romantic comedy and many of the rest of the cast are basically unheard of! The best part is, neither of these leads are the sidekick or any other terrible Asian stereotype that Hollywood was passed onto Asians in the past several years.
No, these two stand on their own as their own interesting characters, because when most of the cast is the minority, they get to feel like the majority. We get to experience them as people living their lives.
*Before moving any further, this is a warning that there will be spoilers in this review.*
As a romantic comedy movie, it had me immediately invested in the leads from the beginning. Hip-hop and rap has a big influence amongst Asian-Americans, especially in the early 1990’s to 2000’s, and even now. Opening with that already connects audience members with the characters as we’re introduced to our two leads: Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park). They’re best friends who grew up together in San Francisco. We get glimpses of their cultures and their lives from childhood to high school. Fast-forward to present day, and Sasha is now a celebrity chef traveling across the country, while Marcus has remained in San Francisco working for his dad. We see the opposing dynamics of progress versus tradition, moving forward and moving out versus staying behind and remaining planted. It’s a duality that has existed for many years in many different stories. And here, it’s what pushes our couple apart and then back together.
Ali Wong and Randall Park are just amazing, but that’s a given. Park, obviously, with his experience from Fresh Off the Boat, another comedy just felt natural for him, and I was pleasantly surprised by his rapping skills as the lead in his band Hello Peril (which is a GREAT way to reclaim the original phrase, “yellow peril”). And with Wong, I already knew she was going to be hilarious because I’ve obsessively watched her comedy specials many times. At the beginning, I just kept thinking, “Oh, well that’s just how Ali Wong is in her comedy specials” and “Oh, that’s just how Randall Park is on Fresh Off the Boat,” but as the movie progressed, it was so great to see the intricacies of both characters: Sasha with her need to progress and adapt, and Marcus with his desire for safety in clinging to the past. Then we get to the common ground at the end where they choose each other and choose a mix of progress and tradition. It’s so rare to see with a heterosexual couple where the man takes the supporting role with the woman being the one who’s trying to push her career forward. Maybe it’s not a big deal for some, but it was so refreshing to see Marcus (and an Asian man at that considering certain traditional patriarchal roles within Asian cultures) cheering on and supporting Sasha in her career.
Of course, we have to mention the Keanu Reeves in the room. It was a great touch of humor, and the dinner scene? A comedic masterpiece! When he started sobbing while wearing headphones and eating his dinner? Absolutely hilarious, because that whole scene is exactly how I imagine super rich people eat and “experience” food. It was a little surreal, honestly, that he was there as himself! He played the “new asshole boyfriend” role so well (and with Daniel Dae Kim being Sasha’s first asshole ex-boyfriend? Perfect line-up of beautiful partners here), and as much as I wanted him to stay in the movie longer, I think he was in and out of the film for the perfect amount of time to help push the plot (and the couple) forward.
So as a romantic comedy, it was pretty standard and very middle-of-the-road. It was formulaic and from the beginning, I knew the two leads were going to end up together (though I recognize that sometimes a good story isn’t about what the ending is, but more so how you get there). It didn’t really reinvent the rom-com wheel by any means, but it was still fun and what one would expect out of a rom-com. But that’s just my personal taste; I was way more invested in the cultural details than the plot line.
I watched this movie with friends and they loved it, enjoyed the story for what it was. We all agreed that, from the start, we were all rooting for Sasha and Marcus to be together. The story is sweet and sentimental from beginning to end (and even in the small, Easter egg details like the fact that the painting of the Kim family was actually done by Randall Park’s mom according to a podcast episode of “They Call Us Bruce”).
But despite the seemingly formulaic storyline itself, Always Be My Maybe shines in the way it makes its audience feel seen. Yes, it is a film that predominantly features Asian-Americans. The representation is real here (and I love the shout-outs to Asian-American solidarity with the “Stay Angry” shirts from Angry Asian Man). But the best part of it all is that the Asian-American cultural representation isn’t forced or explained. It just is. In an early scene, young Sasha arrives homes and takes off her shoes before entering, and Young Marcus saying how he doesn’t want to bring Thermos soup to school. Sasha’s parents are still frugal despite their daughter being a celebrity chef with tons of money. Casual hints in conversations about gentrification happening in the neighborhood. The fact that Marcus still drove that damn old Corolla from way back when and the doors can only be opened from the outside (FYI I have a friend with basically the same car door situation also with an old Corolla. This is real and it’s hilarious how the movie captured this specific experience). But the line that struck me the most; that made me feel the most seen, was towards the end at Sasha’s New York restaurant where she wanted to make: “the kind of food that makes people feel at home.”
The cultural details and stories of the Asian-American experience were there and it didn’t need to be explained; the characters just got it. For the Asian-American audiences, they get it too, because they’ve lived this life and they’ve experienced this culture. Food is so significant in Asian- American culture, and many of us have intricate relationships with it (from being bullied at a young age for bringing “ethnic” food to school, sometimes in a Thermos, to finding comfort in a mom’s home cooking). There’s a whole analysis that can be done with the role food plays in this movie and what it means to the Asian-American community (the fact that Sasha is trying to “elevate” food while Marcus critiques that Sasha was only catering Asian food to the tastebuds of, essentially, rich white people). But that ties into why I did eventually fall head over heels for this movie. That was my favorite part: the culture was just allowed to exist, we were allowed to exist, without explanation and without pretense.
In the end, what I loved most about the movie was the representation. I may have been a little harsh about the plot line, but I watched each moment excitedly because I felt seen. The movie showed that Asian-Americans are diverse and aren’t part of a monolith: not all Asian-Americans have Tiger Moms (Sasha has an estranged relationship with her parents whereas Marcus had a loving one with his). I didn’t feel a forced connection to the token Asian character; I genuinely felt connected to everyone in their own unique ways. Also, this is a very small thing, but as someone who only wears glasses (no contacts) in my day-to-day life, I loved seeing a main character also wear glasses in her day-to-day life. Although I wasn’t super drawn to the overall story, I would still watch this again because I can easily see this movie becoming a comfort for me.
Written by Wong, Park, and Michael Golamco, and directed by creator of Fresh Off the Boat Nahnatchka Khan, Always Be My Maybe is now streaming on Netflix and screening at select theaters.