Published May 30, 2019The heat coming off of the trailer for Always Be My Maybe was palpable, even if what the preview promised was comfort food. Pairing hit standup and sought-after writer Ali Wong with the hot comedic actor Randall Park is an easy sell, and a cameo from internet boyfriend-of-moment Keanu Reeves doesn't hurt either. In this Netflix original film, they're following a premise shared with half of all Hallmark Channel movies: a driven career woman returns to her hometown for business, and while there, reignites an old flame.
In the hands of dozens of made-for-TV movies, this plot is an excuse to run back to an older set of values. Here, Wong, Park and director Nahnatchka Khan fulfill the requirements of the romantic-comedy genre, while pushing the limits to make a more individual work.
The story starts out in 1996 San Francisco, when the city could still support a thriving middle class. Pre-teen Sasha has hours to herself at home, cooking, while her parents spend long hours running their business. Her next door neighbours, including the similarly-aged Marcus, welcome her in with open arms and a Korean soup, in time becoming a second family to her.
Flash forward to 2003, with Wong and Park playing teen versions of Sasha and Marcus, with braces and floppy hair, respectively. After years of friendship, unexpected trauma and an awkward encounter drive them apart and they go their separate ways.
In the present, Sasha is a celebrity chef returning to San Francisco to open an ambiguously themed haute cuisine restaurant while on a break from her restaurateur fiancé (Daniel Dae Kim). (The cold businessman who's wrong for the lead? You can find plenty of those in Hallmarks, too.) Meanwhile, Marcus is the kind of burnout who'll smoke weed in his bed at his dad's house while wearing his own band's shirt. He can't muster the ambition to take any steps forward in his life, while Sasha is always ready to move on to the next project. The two reconnecting causes them each to take stock.
From the opening, we're in the framework for rom-coms and TV romances, though the filmmakers don't stay within those lines. The woman who needs to reassess her values; the man who needs to step up –– these kind of journeys, paired with the expectation of the leads winding up together, come in movies that follow strict rhythms. This iteration gently pushes its ambitions beyond that, hitting beats early to move on to new, more interesting territory. Always Be My Maybe is no question still a comfort piece, but with its own ambitions, as well as a nice change, at least, to have Wong and Park as leads.
While working in this territory, the movie is most successful when it finds unique details. Visually, nothing about the movie pops; the whole film is shot and lit dryly. What catches the eye is all the action happening in a real place. The location shooting, highlighting the streets and spots of the city, stands out, as does the Bay Area hip-hop soundtrack.
In the end, the specificity is what makes the movie. Wong and Park wrote the movie themselves, with Michael Golamco, and one feels their perspective on Asian-American cultures and just particular character types more broadly brought a lot to the work. The friends, family and people in the community feel drawn from real life, while still fitting into the warmth and sweetness of a romantic comedy.
The leads themselves play the roles well. As he's done in his career to date, Park can stay low-key while still holding the screen, a quality that plays especially well in this setting. Wong brings humour and personality on her end, a tough proposition for some who take on career-motivated characters. Beyond that, she also has moments of real depth, where she's playing out knowing self-delusion, that really impress.
Speaking of performers, it's tough to talk about this movie without going into Reeves, who comes in and almost literally stops the show. His third act reveal continues to develop the plot, while also taking over the movie for a bit. The less said, the better, except to mention that Keanu, living with the public glow of the achievement that is John Wick: Chapter 3 –– Parabellum, seems to be having the time of his life.
Also fun? Park's band in the movie. Tell me about a live funk and hip-hop experience and more times than not I'll be running for cover. Whenever Marcus takes the stage in Always Be My Maybe, what he's putting out is clever, fun, and completely in line with his character. Seeing Sasha as a chef more throughout the film would've been a nice complement. Nonetheless, the movie manages a shared focus between the characters well, taking them on a journey just outside of your standard rom-com.