Love, Basketball, and Boogie.
Boogie is Eddie Huang’s isolation play against mainstream Hollywood—an offensive one-on-one strategy that pits his first feature film against a stubbornly traditional entertainment industry. In an environment where name recognition is key to elevating new stories to theatrical audiences, Boogie stands out for how grounded it is in raw talent. Unfortunately, Huang misses more shots than he makes.
The film’s title refers to Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a high school basketball player in Queens who might have what it takes to score a full basketball scholarship and maybe, eventually, a ticket to the NBA. He’ll need that scholarship because his parents (Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee) are struggling to stay afloat financially. All their hopes and dreams for Boogie’s future rest on his emerging skills, similar to how Huang puts faith into Takahashi to anchor this cast as a first-time actor.
Huang, who also wrote the screenplay, devotes the bulk of this tale to the generational tensions between Asians and Asian Americans. Boogie’s identity is torn between his Asian immigrant family’s traditions and his Asian American expectations. He doesn’t want his first-generation identity to be reduced to “beef and broccoli,” which he uses as a metaphor to describe how people who look like him in America get stereotyped and pigeonholed. For Boogie, basketball is his escape hatch from a toxic home life, where his parents—who had him out of wedlock when they were very young—constantly fight over his future. The film even begins with a scene 18 years in the past, as a fortune teller lays out Boogie’s destiny to his impressionable parents, who are unsure about raising a child at their age. Through Boogie’s eyes, the path forward might not be so easily predictable.
It’s easy to see why Huang wanted to set his first film in New York. His upstart background, as described in his memoir, was the basis for the pilot of the hit ABC series Fresh Off The Boat. He has a clear interest in universalizing the Asian American experience for broader audiences. He uses Boogie’s bootstrap beginnings to illustrate the various forms of love; the unconditional, almost unconscious familial love he recognizes in other minority families couldn’t be less like the seemingly conditional love he experiences from his parents, particularly his mother. If he doesn’t succeed, as he claims aloud to his girlfriend Eleanor (Taylour Paige), then his parents won’t love him, or perhaps have a reason to after sacrificing so much to raise him. How can he possibly make a single choice for himself under that kind of pressure?
Off the court, Boogie’s personal melodramas include a burgeoning love story with Eleanor and a tight friendship with Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). On the court, and through a bizarre sequence of less believable plot contrivances, Boogie has a villain he has to overcome played in the film posthumously by Bashar Jackson (a.k.a. Pop Smoke, who was tragically killed in February, 2020). Their rivalry is less than electric, but the film’s more intriguing thread involves Boogie’s headspace as a team player. His coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) insists that Boogie can’t succeed unless he relies on his fellow teammates. But for Boogie, it all feels all on him, all the time. Only he can save his family. Only he can carry the team to success. The film revolves around Boogie to excessive degree, to the point where it’s hard to imagine any of these characters existing outside of his orbit of self-importance.
It’s a potent direction for a rookie film, but just as Boogie approaches its final destination, it whiffs. Manufactured drama between a sleazy manager (Mike Moh) and Boogie’s family pushes the story into a bizarre, out-of-place ultimatum. Rather than allow Boogie to make the hard decisions this film has been setting up all along, it forces him into a corner and zaps the plot of its most pressing stakes. There’s still more basketball to be played and more arguing to be had, but it all starts to feel like predetermined fluff. Like the last five minutes of a basketball game that was decided at half time.