Indie coming-of-age dramedy about a precocious Chinese-American youth whose family operates a sleazy roadside motel signals arrival of a singularly promising filmmaker. Writer-director Michael Kang covers familiar territory mined memorably by auteurs ranging from Francois Truffaut (“The 400 Blows”) to Frank Whaley (“Joe the King”). But “The Motel” offers a fresh take on characters and conventions, and compels interest with shrewd, sympathy-inspiring storytelling. Careful marketing and critical support could result in upbeat arthouse B.O. and homevid sales.
Newcomer Jeffrey Chyau impresses with an unaffected yet engagingly expressive performance as 13-year-old Ernest, an overweight daydreamer and budding writer who lives with a cranky mother (Jade Wu), annoying kid sister (Alexis Chang) and ancient grandfather (Stephen Chen) in unspecified suburbia. (Pic was shot in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)
Ever since his father abandoned them, Ernest has shouldered most maintenance responsibilities at the family-run motor inn, which means that each day after school, the youngster gets graphic lessons in the seedier aspects of life while cleaning rent-by-hour rooms.
Working from the novel “Waylaid” by Ed Lin, Kang emphasizes character over plot, so that the loose-knit narrative evolves as steady accumulation of sharply-observed, vividly-rendered details. When he isn’t avoiding the bellicose son of some long-term residents, a family even more dysfunctional than his own, Ernest nurses his crush on Christine (Samantha Futerman), a slightly older teen waitress at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Although Christine wants to remain “just friends,” she offers sincere congratulations when Ernest wins “honorable mention” in an essay contest. But Ernest’s mother is far less supportive — she mocks her son for his literary ambitions, venting pent-up rage she feels over abandonment by her husband.
Much of “Motel” pivots on the budding friendship between Ernest and Sam, a smooth-talking, sharp-dressing Korean-American twentysomething who checks into the motel for a quickie with a hooker, then remains as a long-term renter. Sam, charismatically played by Sung Kang (“Better Luck Tomorrow”), apparently views his stay at the seedy motel as self-imposed exile in the wake of a break-up with his girlfriend. For all his bad habits — or, more likely, because of them — this obvious ne’er-do-well becomes a surrogate big brother for Ernest, imparting dubious wisdom. Not surprisingly, life lessons are taken to heart, with mixed results.
Taking his cue from Truffaut, his most obvious influence, Kang refrains from making any character an out-and-out villain. Even the bully who torments Ernest is as much victim as victimizer. And Ernest’s mother, though embittered and often shrewish, is given ample reason for her rancor. Of course, it helps a lot that Wu gives the role enough complexity to prevent the character from curdling into caricature. Even so, when mother berates son for wanting to tell stories — which, in her mind, is tantamount to lying — more than a few writers in the aud (and not just children of tradition-bound immigrant parents) will wince at memories of similar childhood experiences with disapproving parents.
Tech values indicate a small budget was spent wisely.