Eddie Huang’s Boogie is a basketball movie, but one of its best moments comes courtesy of tennis. Boogie, né Alfred Chin (Taylor Takahashi) comes back to his home in Flushing, Queens, to find his Taiwanese immigrant father (Perry Yung) rewatching, for apparently the gazillionth time, the 1989 French Open match between Taiwanese-American upstart Michael Chang and the heavily favored world No. 1, Ivan Lendl. Chang won that match, which happened the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and went on to win the tournament. When Dad repeats his fervent assertion that this was “the greatest moment in Asian American history,” however, Boogie — so observant of his cultural identity in so many other ways — all but rolls his eyes. It’s the tragedy of even the most triumphant immigrant experience that the hard-won opportunities gifted to the next generation includes the opportunity to reject, disdain or misunderstand their parents’ dearest passions. Boogie has other battles to fight. The model of Asian-American excellence that Chang represented does not bounce his ball.
Like many a talented basketball player, Boogie cherishes NBA dreams. But he lives in an ABC (American-born Chinese) reality. “We can cook, clean and count real good, but anything else we’re picked last,” says his uncle, played by Huang himself (who as a lawyer turned restaurateur turned author turned writer-director, is a living rebuke to such underestimation). However, Asian representation — Taiwanese at that — is no longer unprecedented even in pro basketball and if, at 18, Boogie is too young to feel the significance of Chang’s tennis triumph, he’s certainly of an age to remember Linsanity. But that, too, he rejects: “Jeremy Lin can suck my dick,” he fronts to a friend at the gym. “He’s more model-minority Jesus freak than he is Asian.” Huang’s film will take the easy way out in a lot of ways — the cliches of the sports movie remain intact — but never with the portrayal of the cauldron of cultural contradictions represented by this young, not always likable American, belligerently proud of his Chinese heritage but heavily influenced in attitude by his Black peers (hence the lively, well-chosen hip-hop-heavy soundtrack).
Boogie needs a basketball scholarship but though scouts are interested, none comes through with a full-ride offer, partly because of his on-court arrogance. His hard-nosed, emotionally withholding mother (Pamelyn Chee) is crisply disappointed and tries to take Momager-style control of his prospects, while his more idealistic father believes all Boogie has to do to attract the right attention is beat the local New York basketball star Monk (20-year-old rapper Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, who died tragically last year). This rivalry will be further intensified by romantic complication: Boogie eyes up fellow student Eleanor (Taylour Paige) in his AP English class, and after a rocky beginning, they get together. Though he’s cocksure on the court and in the gym, Boogie is less sure of his, er, manhood elsewhere; in an endearing (and very unusual) losing-his-virginity scene, he worries aloud that his “dick might be trash.”
Spoiler: Boogie’s dick appears not to be trash — or if it is, Eleanor doesn’t mind, because they’re more or less an item thereafter. Last seen as the eponymous messy bitch in Janicza Bravo’s Zola and as Viola Davis’ minxish toygirl in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Paige is terrifically magnetic, even when the film tries to put her squarely into a trophy-girlfriend role. Before she’s narratively sidelined in the last third when the rather desultory on-court action has to come to a head, her scenes with Takahashi carry a sweet authentic charge, especially when Eleanor gets in a few good, wise digs of her own. In particular, when Boogie complains about feeling the pressure of 5000 years of Chinese history, she reminds him simply that, “My history was ripped from me.” Nobody here has a premium on feeling the oppression of legacies they never asked to inherit, but did.
That moment is also indicative of Boogie‘s subtle subversion. In code switching between the Asian-American and Black-American experiences, it simply bypasses white involvement altogether — with the exception of a sympathetic English teacher and a handful of scenes with Boogie’s gruff coach (Domenick Lombardozzi), there are really no Caucasian characters to speak of here. Which is such a nice sentence to write, let’s have it again: There are really no white characters to speak of here. And if it’s on the nose that the book they’re studying in that English class is The Catcher in the Rye, that tired trope is used subversively as well: Our disaffected young man overtly does not identify with Holden Caulfield, and instead questions the book’s stance and its assumptions about its readers. Later, when his Dominican best friend Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) mentions Oscar Wao, the pivot from Salinger to Junot Diaz may, again, be obvious. (It may also come out of a clumsy conversation that’s not wholly believable as two laid-back besties shooting the shit.) But still, it’s there, and it’s troubling to the canon, so good for it.
The only way the film can thread this needle convincingly is by being informed by personal experience, and Huang’s autobiography is present in many of Boogie’s more compelling details. But the only way it could cram in all that scenery without derailing into “prestige drama” territory is by mapping that experience onto a comfortingly familiar framework, i.e. the sports-underdog story. This is a film that makes you appreciate just how useful genre can be. As an Asian-American movie in which the main axis of cross-reference is Black culture, Huang’s film not only addresses the frequent incapability of the white mainstream establishment to imagine a narrative that does not contain their perspective. As a traditional, accessible, familiarly-structured crowdpleaser, Boogie, in its modest, far-from-flawless way, challenges them to enjoy one as well.