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With his feature directorial debut, “Boogie,” Eddie Huang wanted to challenge his audience.

“It was always white people in school that were like, ‘Oh, I love “Catcher in the Rye,” I love Holden Caulfield,’” says Huang. “And I’m like, well, let me present you with a quite unlikable Asian character and see if you love him in the same way.”

“Boogie” is the coming-of-age story of Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a teenage basketball phenom in Queens, New York, with ambitions to make it to the NBA. He struggles with on-court rivals, his identity as a Chinese American and the pressure from his parents to earn a full-ride scholarship to an elite university, all the while navigating his first experience with love. The film was released via Focus Features in March.

“All of us kind of suck as teens,” Huang says. “None of us are really that good at being people yet. And a lot of the characters you see in teenage or YA films, they’re very manufactured and they’re almost like either all good or all bad. I wanted to show a character that just struggled becoming a man.”

As a creative who is using his platform to tell interesting, inspiring stories, Huang is being presented with Variety‘s inaugural Voice of Inspiration Award at the Reel Works 20th Anniversary Gala on May 26. The New York organization pairs teens with filmmaker mentors to tell their stories and have their voices heard.

“It was a really big surprise, I’m honored. It means a lot to be recognized by peers and people that appreciate, I’m just a dude who, while I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve always felt like outside of the town,” he says. “These things mean a lot to people. I don’t win that many awards, or I don’t get given awards, so I thought it was cool.”

Eddie Huang is an inspirational leader because he’s achieved that miraculous feat of combining essential truths with engaging storytelling,” said Steven Gaydos, Variety‘s executive VP of content. “From ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ to ‘Boogie,’ Huang is deepening our understanding of the Asian American experience by turning the often-thorny elements of his own journey as a person of color in America into relatable, universally appealing entertainment.”

Huang’s foray into film has been a long time coming. He first hit Hollywood when his memoirs were adapted into ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” Also a restaurateur, he combined his chef expertise with his entertainment prowess and hosted the Cooking Channel’s “Cheap Bites,” MTV’s “Snack Off” and Viceland’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” which evolved in “Huang’s World,” a docuseries where Huang traveled the globe to explore identity through food. But long before Huang ever opened his now-closed Manhattan bun shop BaoHaus — or earned a law degree and had a stint in a corporate firm — he studied English and film at Rollins College in Orlando, Fla.

A rare coming-of-age film about an Asian American, “Boogie” is a genre standout from the get-go. What’s more, the movie is the first and final acting performance of the late Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke, who was murdered in February 2020 at just 20 years old during a home invasion. He played Boogie’s basketball nemesis, Monk.

“It’s still really, really painful to think about,” Huang says. “I’m happy that I was able to, in that way, make his family proud and make his friends proud and I think I made him proud. That meant a lot to me. I felt a great sense of responsibility.”

Though “Boogie” is set in the present, Huang describes it as being a “snapshot of what it was like as an ’80s baby, being Asian, growing up in America.” It pulled from his own family’s story, with his mom even featured in the film as a fortune teller. He says his parents are proud of the movie, but that “it wasn’t like a celebration.” Like Boogie, Huang “grew up in a family with a lot of violence.”

“When your parents are so focused on surviving and providing and figuring out this country they came to that makes no sense to them, it’s like, there’s no time for this. There should be, but there wasn’t,” Huang says. “They see their mistakes and they see what bothered me, but at the end of the day they know I know that they love me, and that’s all they care about. My parents are really good people.”

Despite the story’s heavy themes, Huang was more interested in exploring Boogie’s relationship with intimacy given that there are already enough dark, rough, coming-of-age movies (think “Kids,” “Trainspotting,” “Better Luck Tomorrow”). It’s an approach he’s been using for projects he currently has in the works, including a stoner noir show for Amazon and “Tuna Melt,” which he says “is like a Hong Kong gangster film dropped in Mid-City” Los Angeles.

“It really left an impression on me that you could choose a prism with which to see everything in the world, and so that’s what I’m doing in this phase of my writing is really exploring things through sexual desires, needs, fulfillment.”