erik lundegaard


Tuesday May 28, 2024

Movie Review: Didi (2024)

Our titular 弟弟 filming and uploading his own petty crimes in the YouTube age.


I was reminded of how screwed up I was as an adolescent. And I was screwed up a long time ago.

Chris Wang, WangWang to his friends (Izaac Wang), 14 years old and our titular didi (弟弟or “younger brother”), lives in a nice neighborhood in Fremont, California with his older sister (Shirley Chen), with whom he fights; his mother (Joan Chen), whose artwork nobody wants; and the father’s mother, Nai Nai (Zhang Li Hua, writer-director Sean Wang’s own grandmother), who is comically up-front and hectoring in the way of Chinese grandmothers. Where’s dad? Working in Taiwan for all of them. In the way of Chinese dads. We never seen him.

So how is Chris screwed up? I guess being Asian American in a mostly white culture is part of it, but not overtly. A girl tells him he’s “good looking—for an Asian” (which, yeah), and a white bully make a slant-eye gesture at him (is that still a thing?), so there are elements of racism even though it’s 2008. But he’s hanging with a multicultural crowd, black and Pakistani kids, so that’s not really the problem. His friends just seem more adept at making the leap. They’re cooler. He’s a step behind—sometimes literally. They walk ahead, all braggadocio, while he quietly trails after.

But his real problem is he lies to fit in and still doesn’t fit in. Also he’s holding back a lot of anger. Also he’s not holding back a lot of anger.

Let’s ask the perennial protagonist question: What does the dude want?

Chris wants:

  • to date Madi (Maheala Park)
  • to hang with skateboard kids
  • to make YouTube videos about skateboarding 

He gets to do each of these things. But then something goes wrong, or something is wrong, and the goal, the desire, is crumpled up and tossed aside.

With Madi, he checks out her MySpace page, finds out what she likes and doesn’t like, and acts accordingly. Example: He pretends he’s a big fan of the 2002 rom-dram “A Walk to Remember” when he’s never seen it and probably wouldn’t like it if he had. (He’s also never seen “Star Wars,” which … what?) But his machinations work, he gets close to Madi. She does most of the heavy lifting. One night, at the park, while they’re talking their silly talk, she suggests playing the nervous game. She keeps moving closer while asking “Are you nervous?” and he keeps saying “No.” Until he doesn’t. Until he says he’s nervous. I get that. Moving in that direction is scary even for adolescent boys. The oddity is that it ends the relationship. Completely. He ends it. He blocks her IMs and ghosts her.

Then he meets some older skateboard kids and lies about his video prowess in order to get in good with them. As a result, a cool confrontation with and escape from a hapless mall security guard doesn’t get filmed properly. Everyone’s disappointed. But that’s not the dealbreaker. At a party, he said he's half-Asian, so when the skateboard kids meet his mom they assume the husband isn’t Chinese. But he is. Everyone’s confused. She’s confused. And Chris blows up at her and slams the door. That’s the dealbreaker. The cool skateboard kids chastise him for being disrespectful to his mom.

I love that for several reasons. One, I was reminded of a white lie I told back in 10th grade. For some reason I suddenly didn’t like my middle name, Anton, maybe because it was too close to “ant,” and I was small, or maybe because it was just different and Danish, so I began writing my middle name as “Antony.” I think I just wanted to be further away from me and this was a small way of doing that. But the main reason I love the above scene is that it upends the stereotype. It’s the non-Chinese kids who are guai haizi, or filial or obedient children, a common, common phrase in Chinese culture. While we have similar words in English, they aren’t commonly used (who uses “filial”?), and they’re certainly not aspirational the way they are in Chinese culture. In Chinese culture, it’s what you’re supposed to be. Chris isn’t, but the cool skateboard kids are. I love that.

Along the way, Chris’ best friend, Fahad (Raul Dial) ditches him one night, and so he ditches him back, and then as school is about to start again he’s going to IM him: Are we still friends? During summer he also decks another kid because—I guess—he was good friends with Madi?

Here's something interesting: The longer the film goes, the less I like the protagonist. That’s not like most coming-of-age films but it is like coming of age. The protagonist there is forever disappointing.

The movie, for its time of life (8th grade going on 9th), not to mention the YouTube of it all, reminded me of Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade”; while the stuff with the older skateboard kids reminded me of Jonah Hill’s “Mid-90s.” But it’s never quite as fraught as the former, nor as poignant as the latter.

But it certainly feels real. And it’s fraught in this way: By the end, we’re truly worried about Chris. Has he backed himself into a corner? Can he break out of being himself? Is there a better self to be?

It’ll be interesting to see where this young director goes. Sean Wang was nominated for an Oscar last year for his short “Nai Nai & Wai Po” (“Father’s Mother & Mother’s Mother”) and one wonders if he’s going to do all the Chinese family member words: Gege, Meimei, Fumu. With the Chinese language, you could go on forever.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Tuesday May 28, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2024