Always Be My Maybe: A Delightful Rom-Com That Revels In Its Cultural Specificity
The romantic comedy movie that Ali Wong and Randall Park had been wanting to make for years, and which Wong described as “[their] version of When Harry Met Sally,” is finally here. And it was worth the wait.
Always Be My Maybe, in its most basic plot, follows a familiar rom-com premise: Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park) grow up together as best friends, but soon after an awkward sexual encounter they drift apart, and it’s only sixteen years later when they meet again, and dormant sparks are gradually reawakened. Nothing super original there, but still, the Netflix film is refreshing in how it grounds and builds on this premise. Nahnatchka Khan, who makes her feature directorial debut with Always, takes the time to develop the cultural world that Sasha and Marcus live in, and the ways it informs their growth.
When they meet again, Sasha has made it big as a celebrity chef opening her own restaurants across the country, while Marcus seems stuck in the past, still living in his childhood home with his father and playing small venues with his high school hip-hop band, Hello Peril (love the wordplay). In a typical rom-com, more personal insecurities might take over and become the central conflict that threatens the relationship. But Always adds thoughtful layers, highlighting the tensions of being ambitious and successful when you are a second-generation Asian American. Whose experience of Asian culture is Sasha really catering to with her trendy “elevations” of Asian food? Is Marcus abandoning his dreams to be the ideal filial Asian son to his father? These and more questions are tackled between Sasha and Marcus as they try to help each other be the best version of themselves. As with the best rom-coms, it is character growth that guides and gives meaning to the romance in Always.
Led by a tight script that Wong and Park co-wrote with Michael Golamco, Always weaves Asian American culture organically into the conflicts and character dynamics. Most of its culturally specific moments – such as asking someone bluntly how much money they earn, taking shoes off before entering the house, and making a meal of Spam and rice with furikake – are simple and ordinary things that feel natural, like a part of the characters’ everyday lives. The on-location filming at many recognizable places in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Wong grew up, further bring the Asian experience of the city to vibrant life. All these little details put on screen make Asian Americans feel seen.
With similar subtlety, the movie breaks down the misperceived monolithic walls of the Asian American experience. In addition to exploring the cross-class relationship between Sasha and Marcus, Always gives us two very real but seldom represented Asian immigrant parent-child relationships. James Saito steals the scenes he’s in, as Marcus’ warm and goofy dad who encourages his son to get out of his comfort zone and dream big. Sasha, on the other hand, is less close to her parents, who were not around much when she was growing up. Yet, unlike the stereotypical stories of Asians who are distant from their parents, Sasha’s tireless drive is not to win her parents’ attention and approval, but for herself. The movie does not shy away from portraying her ambition in its full power, nor does it try to tame her.
The humour is also a big part of what makes Always a delight. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny. The extended cameo by Keanu Reeves gamely playing a douchey version of himself is comedy gold. Both Wong and Park have made a name for themselves doing comedy, and the script plays to their respective comedic strengths. Wong’s bold and biting wit that made her Netflix stand-up specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife such acclaimed hits is infused in the movie, though with less raunchy flavour. At the same time, Wong also shows off her dramatic chops in more poignant moments. Park complements her well with his own brand of dorky charm. He also draws from his personal experience in a band to co-write and rap the Hello Peril songs, which are full of zingers – stay through the credits to catch arguably the best song!
However, some of the gags could have been more socially aware and responsible. For instance, Sasha is poking fun at how Chinese people sneakily abuse handicap parking passes when she points out a seemingly “all able-bodied” man doing so right in front of her, completely ignoring the many invisible or not immediately apparent disabilities. Its throwaway delivery, plus the fact that no one calls her out on it, perpetuates ableism for the sake of laughs.
Additionally, given how significantly Always features hip-hop and R&B music, it could have included more black people, to ground the blackness of the movie on actual black people and not just commodified forms of their culture. The long-standing debate over Asian American appropriation of African American culture is somewhat addressed in the mockery of a Korean American woman’s dreadlocks. And Sasha’s friend Veronica (played by Michelle Buteau), as the movie’s only prominent black character, edges a little close to the Funny Black Best Friend archetype, though her own romantic relationship and pregnancy hint that her life is more than playing matchmaker to Sasha and Marcus.
Aside from a few careless “jokes,” Always is a fun and sweet movie. It’s a joy to watch a cute and supportive romantic relationship between two Asian Americans fully develop. It’s also sad that it is so rare on the big screen. Unsurprisingly, Always is being compared to Crazy Rich Asians. But while Crazy Rich Asians is historic in showing that a rom-com where two people of Asian descent fall in love can be a box office hit, the movie is ultimately more drama than comedy, and a cute relatable romance even less. In Always, we follow an endearing love story from childhood best friends to lovers who rediscover each other – and themselves in each other. It may follow some conventional rom-com tropes, but it’s an aww-worthy, #RelationshipGoals-aspirable love story that Asians everywhere deserve to see people like themselves in. Best believe we will be returning to the movie for multiple re-watches, no maybes about it.
Written By: Wu Xueting
Edited By: Keshav Kant