For subtlety’s sake, it’s better if coming-of-age stories don’t feature subplots in which characters are asked to pen their own autobiographical tales of maturation, and then spend time debating the merits of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as their personal similarities to its protagonist, Holden Caulfield. That “Boogie” does this is emblematic of its frequent clunkiness. Nonetheless, Eddie Huang’s directorial debut about a Chinese American basketball player trying to balance athletics, romance and parental expectations compensates for its narrative shortcomings by conveying a strong sense of its milieu’s culture and customs — elements that should give it a leg up on the competition when it debuts in theaters on March 5.
In Flushing, Queens, Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) strives to realize his dream of making it to the NBA. To facilitate this goal, Boogie — at the behest of his demanding father (Perry Yung) — transfers to City Prep, where he thinks he’ll have the best shot at beating top NYC prospect Monk (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson) and impressing scouts enough to secure a scholarship to a premiere college. Boogie’s ambition is a familiar one, but Huang’s film couches it within a unique Asian-American context. Alongside the pressure to establish himself as a rising star (and better than his rival), the teenager is burdened by feelings of responsibility to honor his parents, who apparently sacrificed greatly in order to give him the opportunity to live in the States.
Huang, the author, chef, restaurateur and attorney whose autobiography “Fresh Off the Boat” became an ABC sitcom, channels his own upbringing as a hip-hop-loving child of Taiwanese immigrants in “Boogie” (he also co-stars, mirthlessly, as Boogie’s IBS-afflicted uncle). The film envisions Boogie as a melting pot unto himself, such that he’s equally comfortable among his racially mixed peers in the gym and classroom, and with his traditional parents, serving tea to his elders and, at one point, falling to his knees to formally apologize to his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) and principal (Margaret Odette). Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s enveloping rap and R&B-laced score further accentuates Boogie’s of-two-worlds condition, as do cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz’s pans through Queens’ Chinatown streets, and recurring detours to a fortune teller shop where Boogie’s mom and dad sought counsel shortly before their only child’s birth.
As if trying to earn a free basketball ride to a top-flight university weren’t stressful enough, Boogie soon finds his mother (Pamelyn Chee) trying to usurp her spouse’s authority over their son’s career by enlisting a shady advisor (Mike Moh). At the same time, Boogie strikes up a budding relationship with Eleanor (Taylour Paige), a Black classmate whose strong-willed personality is just what the arrogant and selfish Boogie needs. Their dynamic is consistently genuine, and peaks during a sex scene in which the virgin Boogie expresses insecurity — an admission that speaks to ingrained stereotypes about Asian and African American men, and which Eleanor soothes with an ease that’s indicative of Paige’s confident and natural performance.
“Boogie” is most assured when focusing on specific Chinese American routines, rituals and mindsets, yet it falters when crafting its larger portrait of Boogie’s predicament. Huang’s script routinely indulges in leaden exposition to get its message, as well as character details and dynamics, across. Moreover, too many of its plot points are underdeveloped, be it Boogie’s parents’ backstory, the dramatic trajectory of City Prep’s season (or individual games), Boogie’s me-first attitude toward his teammates, or a series of late incidents that are quickly skimmed over so the proceedings can get to a climactic streetball showdown that, like the rest of the underwhelming on-court action, lacks rhythm and momentum.
In his first big-screen role, Takahashi proves a commanding physical presence, and his scenes with the late hip-hop star Pop Smoke (who died in February 2020 at the age of 20) provide the film with some macho friction. Takahashi’s line deliveries, however, vary wildly between convincing and affected — the latter partly due to dialogue that’s too blunt and functional by half. Like “Boogie” itself, his performance is an uneven mix of the real and the phony.