About 40 minutes into Boogie Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi) speaks up in class while discussing J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and gives his take on the character of Holden Caulfield. He relates how he can’t connect with the privileged protagonist and his constant expounding about his desire for meaning and responsibility in life, even though he has no idea what that even entails.
In most movies, the viewer would now think back to the situation of the main character and draw contrast from the literary parallels provided. However, up to this point in Boogie, a lot has been said, yet it’s almost impossible to connect the dots.
Boogie, Eddie Huang’s filmmaking debut, follows an Asian American with dreams of playing in the NBA. You sense the writer/director thinks he’s said a lot by this point, yet the audience struggles to find purpose for the character outside of the logline. Huang’s audacious attempts at comparing his risk-free story to J. D. Salinger’s generation-defining novel aside, Boogie is not a good film, and this classroom scene is merely a microcosm of everything wrong with it.
The themes, especially by this halfway point, are just floating in the ether, barely touching on the plight of Asian Americans and the long, complex history of Asian immigrants in this country and their children. While it’s not this movie’s responsibility to tackle ideas such as the model minority status of Asian Americans or the Chinese Exclusion Act, Boogie clearly wants to discuss racial stereotypes and race relations, but barely even scratches the surface or provides any thoughtful commentary on the matter. In fact, it’s almost small-minded in its approach.
The film begins in 2001 with a cryptic scene of Boogie’s parents visiting a psychic who provides them with information about their future child. 18 years later in present day Queens we meet Arthur “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a high school senior who’s just transferred schools so he can face the number-one high school prospect, Monk (Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson). Along the way he also develops a romantic relationship with his classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige).
Boogie’s parents are divided on his potential basketball career. His father believes in his talents and is more focused on the dream aspect of playing in the NBA, whereas his mother couldn’t care less about basketball or his dreams as long as it makes him good money.
It’s hard to get lost in this movie. There’s no suspense regarding Boogie’s stakes, no real urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel his struggle. Huang has a hard time getting to the root of the plot outside of the core premise and fills his scenes with verbose and empty dialogue that never knows what it’s trying to say. Poor editing makes the film just feel like a random sequence of disconnected scenes rather than a story with an established arc.
We know Boogie has to learn how to win as a team member rather than a one-man firing squad – his main hurdle to getting a scholarship for college. However, this goal never connects to anything else in the story, and his growth in this department never informs any other aspect of his character.
As a director, Huang has no voice behind the camera or a keen enough understanding of cinematic language. At one point Boogie is attending a street ball game to take notes on his rival. Eleanor, who has shown little-to-no interest in basketball is also there. We see Boogie, and then the camera cuts to Eleanor coming into focus through a crowd of people. A savvy director would then cut back to Boogie so the audience can see his reaction to spotting his love interest at some random basketball match.
Did he know she was there? Is he happy to see her? Or is he confused since she expressed a lukewarm interest in the sport earlier? None of these questions become answered, let alone ruminated on.
Somehow the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz is often nice to look at, but that’s similar to a photograph that uses all the right colorizing and touch-ups to make the picture look pretty, yet doesn’t tell us anything. Like even the worst of films, the story threads sort of come together in the final act, but then still leave us with a predictable and anticlimactic conclusion.
Boogie is good at basketball. Very good. Unfortunately we rarely get to see his skills in action. It’s not that difficult to make basketball exciting. Even the most incompetent basketball movies find respite in the inherent energy that the sport provides. Here, we wish the basketball content was leaned into more, at least. Instead, the on-the-court stuff is so dry and incoherent with an inexplicable abundance of close-ups and mid-shots. These scenes are suffocating, and even members of the audience who are most knowledgeable on the subject can’t tell what’s going on.
Other than the final match, we never even see a scoreboard during the nonsensically prolonged sequences early on – only if his team wins or loses.
Takahashi has confidence for the role and appears to understand the character he’s playing, but there’s just no nuance to his approach, only showing us conviction when he’s talking casually. Paige, on the other hand, is one of the film’s few shining lights. The actress doesn’t just know how to express, she actually makes the audience believe (at times) what they’re hearing is screenwriting gold. Paige also gives us perhaps the only line of dialogue that provides any sort of reflection with her story about visiting SeaWorld to see the dolphins, who she noticed had clear complexion despite being caged up.
But when she later visited Trinidad and saw dolphins in the wild, she was able to see how, although they had scars and gashes in their skin, they were free. Much like the Catcher in the Rye instance, there’s no weight behind this statement, only an isolated observation with no contextual application to this movie.
Aside from Paige’s character, nothing in this film feels realistic. And because the things I can actually relate to feel inauthentic, I then lose trust in the filmmaker and begin doubting the authenticity behind the things I can’t relate to. As both a film critic and film fan, that’s never a good position to be in.
Boogie is a rough debut for Huang as he can’t ever seem to pin down the poeticism in such an intriguing story with the fresh perspective that I’m sure he has. The unique premise should be more inspiring and moving than this. I’d be surprised that the multi-hyphenate will try his hand at film-making again anytime soon. Fortunately, he still has plenty of other hats he can wear.