Boogie's Clunkiness Undermines Its Strengths
If there’s one thing Boogie has going for it, it’s the film’s utter commitment to cultural specificity, which shines through as sincere despite a lack of subtlety. In his directorial debut, Eddie Huang (best known for his memoir Fresh Off the Boat, adapted into the series of the same name) valiantly strives to infuse a standard coming of age narrative with insight into the experience of growing up in an Asian-American family, but unfortunately — though perhaps understandably — doesn’t seem to trust the audience to pick up on cultural nuance; as a result, Boogie gets bogged down in an overly expository style that ultimately undermines Huang’s strengths as a storyteller.
The contrivances of the set-up don’t help matters much: the titular character — Alfred, nicknamed “Boogie” — is a high school basketball player (Taylor Takahashi, mostly making teenage angst believable despite reading as closer to 30 than 18), recently transferred to a new school that will give him a chance to go head to head against Monk (the late Bashar "Pop Smoke" Jackson), the “best player in the five boroughs,” a showdown that will ideally push him over the edge when it comes to snagging a college basketball scholarship. I’m no expert, but I’m not sold this type of one-on-one faceoff accurately represents how college scouting works; regardless, the more important conflict created here is the one between Alfred and his parents, who both want him to succeed but for — Alfred thinks — different reasons.
The stakes lend themselves to plenty of melodrama along the way. When that drama centers the plot, it has a tendency to fall flat: as the film progresses, we start to get overloaded with contract negotiations and criminal charges and high school basketball championship logistics, none of which we’re ever given enough reason to care about. More successful are the character-driven moments, particularly Alfred’s relationship with classmate Eleanor (an excellent Taylour Paige), which has a charming innocence to it despite falling into some questionable gender stereotyping that the film doesn’t quite have the ability to untangle.
But good as those moments can be, they’re too often robbed of their power by the script’s overall clunkiness. It’s hard to blame Huang for the film’s tendency towards over-explanation: as a bloc, American moviegoers aren’t universally regarded for their cultural fluency. However, there’s a fine line between providing the audience a cultural foundation and cinematic language and beating them over the head with it, and Boogie frequently tips over into the latter camp. Hopefully Huang, with his unique voice and platform, can strike a stronger balance the next time around.