“Fresh off the Boat” author and producer Eddie Huang makes his feature filmmaking debut with “Boogie,” a fresh and feisty sports dramedy that takes movie formulas and cultural tropes out for a spin.
Sports movie formula? It’s all about “the Big Game” and getting a basketball scholarship. Only that benchmark scene is defanged, knocked off its axis.
Over-achieving Asian immigrants? Our hero, winningly played by Taylor Takahashi, has screaming, brawling parents who guilt him to paper over their own shortcomings. Mom (Pamelyn Chee, scary) is an inept, manipulative control freak and Dad (Perry Yung) has never been more than a town car “limo” driver, partly due to his explosive temper.
Every hint of “a tradition in our culture” that they trot out is “playing the China card.” The film is framed within a flashback of the bickering couple’s pregnant visit to a fortune teller, whose inscrutable advice is laughable, all things considered.
“Love will melt the sharpest sword.” What happens when there is no love, more a partnership?
A key scene is a ritual. Boogie — real name Alfred Chin — sits with his father for yet another viewing of “the greatest moment in Chinese American history,” Michael Chang’s win over Ivan Lendl in the 1989 French Open.
The kid trots out better “greatest” exemplars. NBA hero Jeremy Lin? “He gave the credit to JESUS.” The kid echoes this to friends, “model minority Jesus freak.”
Maya Lin? Yeah, maybe. She was 21 when designed the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.
Dad is supportive but sanguine about the family “plan” — get Boogie, a brawny guard — from high school to the NBA.
“No one believes in an Asian basketball player,” Dad grouses. “We can cook, clean, count real good. Anything else? We’re picked last.”
With scenes like that Huang takes us into a world that feels lived-in and lives that show strain under the weight they carry. Boogie has game, swagger, a mouth and a temper. He’s transferred to City Prep and can turn their “trash team” into winners — if he can learn to play well with others, control his temper and tone down the mouthiness. Heaven knows this ABC (American born Chinese) is going to be reminded of “what we went through” to put you here by his parents. Every damn day.
But his patter might be a help when he swoons into his first big crush. Classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) is all dreads and eyes and attitude and doesn’t mess around with “ballers.” But she notices the attention.
“He could get it if he stopped STARING.”
Boogie? “I feel like a left-handed layup right now.” Yup. We’ve seen him take them them on the court. He uses his right hand. Big hole in his game, and he knows it and recognizes Eleanor as the same hopeless challenge.
Huang turns their courtship into something young and lightly charming, and their “first time” into lowdown comedy.
That’s the kind of movie “Boogie” is and has to be. Because as “the plan” keeps going off the rails and the biggest challenge looms like a date with a great Black shark. Someday, Boogie will be tested by Monk, the playground courts legend and high school brute who owns this game in its Mecca, New York City.
The Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke (Bashar Barakah Jackson) makes a startling debut as the “best baller in the five boroughs” villain, a bullying b-ball machine on the court. Sadly, that’ll be the only impression he leaves in the movies, as he was murdered in Feb. just before “Boogie” came out.
Huang keeps this world and its problems and complications real as the third act devolves into twists and intrigues we don’t see coming.
And he keeps the dialogue flip and funny, with Boogie upending expectations at every turn. A walk through Chinatown has him turning up his nose at “these ‘Gremlins’ keepers” and woos his lady friend with dates that include a Tai Chi stop, and dominoes, because “I just like countin’ em up.”
“That’s the most Chinese s— you’ve ever said!”
We root for them and pull for Boogie. And every time we figure we know how this will turn out because we’ve seen 74 earlier versions of “this movie,” Huang trips us up.
His flawed hero, more flawed parents and pipe dreams become our dreams, which “Big Game” or not, is all we could hope for in any sports dramedy.
MPA Rating: R for language throughout including sexual references, and some drug use
Cast: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Paige, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mike Moh, Domenick Lombardozzi and Pop Smoke.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Eddie Huang. A Focus Features release.
Running time: 1:29