Shortcomings is based on cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s semi-autobiographical comic of the same name (collected as a standalone graphic novel after its initial serialized publication in the author’s long-running Optic Nerve series).
Ben Tanaka (here portrayed by Justin H. Min) is a mid-20s layabout in Berkeley, California, working at a rundown arts theatre by day and ignoring his politically active girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), by night. He feels deeply sorry for himself and generally sucks. His only real friend is Alice (Sherry Cola), a student whose general misanthropy gives the two a unique and enduring chemistry. Miko is increasingly interested in the politics of Asian Americans in the United States; Ben couldn’t give much of a shit. Frankly, he doesn’t give a shit about much of anything. He argues that he never faced racism in school; all that hatred from other students was due to his lousy personality, not his race.
When Miko decides to take up an internship across the country in New York City, putting her relationship with Ben on hold, he decides to take the opportunity to date women of European descent. He’s never been with anyone but Miko, and she and Alice always teased him about his “type.” Things don’t go as planned.
The script, which Tomine adapted from his work for the screen, does a fine job sketching out a truly unlikable protagonist in Ben, whose selfishness knows no bounds. Problem is that’s about the only element of the film that feels fleshed out, and his inability to learn lessons or grow through the film’s story creates a monotony it can’t escape. Alice, Miko and the women in Ben’s life all speak extemporaneously about the issues afflicting Asian Americans, particularly questions pertinent to dating and cultural appropriation, but it all feels like a lot of talking rather than a lot of character. The film never feels particularly lived in. They lack lives outside their social circles.
And, sure, that’s the nature of an ideal 20s, I guess — a magic time where, if you have the right familial connections, the drama of your existence can be boiled down to the passive concerns brought upon by post-college entropy. Ben wants for nothing until the end of the film except to never take responsibility for the way he makes other people feel. The world changes around him, and he steadfastly refuses to change with it until other people outright tell him they’re done with him. However, he refuses to change, and in the context of the story, his biggest moment is letting go of something he didn’t have. By the time he stalks Miko to New York, it’s hard not to just want him to screw off.
In truth, this story feels like one built for the comics and not a film. Randall Park does a good job in his directorial debut, adequately filming characters chatting. But so much of the pure focus on personal misery and awkward social frustrations feels at home with a medium that can much more functionally focus on a single perspective via captions, boxes and art that are drawn to emphasize character without the necessity of setting every interaction in fully fleshed-out physical space. The visual and structural abstraction of a comic book has always made it the best form for autobiographical fiction. Binding what is essentially an anthology of personal misery into an underdeveloped ensemble of much more interesting characters makes for a film more frustrating than not.