Review by David Baldwin
Alfred Chin (newcomer Taylor Takahashi) is a high school senior living in Queens. He goes by the nickname Boogie and he dreams of playing basketball in the NBA. His has the skills and the drive, but needs a scholarship in order to play college ball — but his stubborn attitude is just one of the many obstacles standing in the way of him achieving his goal.
There is a lot I admire about Boogie. The film is the feature directorial debut of Eddie Huang, the restauranteur who wrote the memoir that inspired the wonderful ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. He infuses his experiences growing up in an Asian-American family into the film, giving it a resonance and cultural expression missing from any number of atypical sports dramas of its ilk. Huang may not have been a sports prodigy, but the struggles Boogie deals with feel authentic and lived in. The soundtrack is great, and the film looks great.
But when you start to look past all of that, everything else starts to come apart. The dialogue feels right for the story Huang is trying to tell, but it never sounds natural or organic coming out of any of his characters’ mouths. We know what Boogie’s goal is, but the motivations and reasons for his actions and those of his parents are not explored nearly enough. The film hinges many crucial scenes on a rivalry between Boogie and local legend Monk (rapper Big Smoke), and features just as many scenes where various characters tell Boogie how he will not get his shot unless he can beat Monk. But outside of a sideways glance at Boogie watching and studying him, we never get a sense that Monk has any idea who Boogie is — which makes some scenes late in the film where they become trash talking rivals feel strange and out of place. If it were not for the blackmail subplot ripped out of a whole other movie, the contrived rivalry between the two would be that much more glaring.
And yes, the film does end on that final, winner-takes-all, basketball game you imagine the film is building to (but there’s a slight pivot — it’s a street basketball game!). While there is a certain amount of predictability that goes along with what that, I was still genuinely surprised by how anti-climactic and uninteresting it all felt.
Takahashi is good as Boogie, but it is clear from the start that this is his feature debut. He looks much older than a high schooler, does not really gel with any of the supporting cast and he lacks the charisma needed to really make you care about his plight. Much like Huang, I admire the effort he puts into the film (and think he’s a great basketball player), but he never seems comfortable enough with the character or anything going on around him. He does fare better than Pop Smoke though, who never really gets a chance to develop or make anything of his character. He needed to be a more compelling presence in the film, and the fact that he died tragically just after filming concluded (the film is dedicated to him) makes his thinly motivated character feel like an even greater missed opportunity. Taylour Paige (who was terrific in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) gets a few great moments as Boogie’s girlfriend Eleanor, but she is not given nearly enough time to explore her character either.
Boogie is an admirable feature debut from Huang. The emphasis on culture was a unique touch to add to this entry in the coming-of-age sports drama genre. But it never feels unique outside of that, and has a feeling of “been there, seen it done much better than this” that it can never overcome. If some of the character motivations were a bit better explored, Boogie could have made for a substantially better film. Perhaps it also could have made the ending a whole lot more exciting?
Boogie hits theatres on Friday, March 5. Please ensure you are cautious and respect all Covid-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.