Always Be My Maybe
“Always Be My Maybe breaks barriers for diverse talent but offers a simplistic take on the Asian American experience.”
Title: Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Director: Nahnatchka Khan 👩🏽🇺🇸
Writers: Michael Golamco 👨🏻🇺🇸, Ali Wong 👩🏻🇺🇸, and Randall Park 👨🏻🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I winced my way through Always Be My Maybe. But perhaps my own lofty expectations are to blame.
As soon as news of the project first hit Twitter in 2017, I had high hopes for what this dream team could produce. Director Nahnatchka Khan’s steady hand, honed through her showrunning of Fresh Off the Boat, could steer the ship while Ali Wong’s birdlike energy and Keanu Reeves’s star power could drive the engines. Randall Park, especially, I’d hoped to see break out of his goofy dad roles and into the lexicon of thirst-inducing Asian men (hi John Cho). But for some reason, the sum of these impressive parts just don’t add up. The end result feels like an awkward and mediocre made-for-TV romantic comedy. Which, I suppose, it is. Without the hooks of a primarily Asian cast and viral slow motion scene featuring Keanu Reeves and his shampoo-commercial hair, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend Always Be My Maybe at all.
Like so many works that center a straight romance, it’s difficult to enter empowering territory. That said, Always Be My Maybe puts its best foot forward and crafts a leading lady who feels effortlessly modern.
Wong plays celebrity chef Sasha Tran whose no-nonsense persona instantly clicks. It’s no great leap to see Sasha, who grew up without parental support, blossom into a self-made woman who slays in business acumen and eyewear but who falters when it comes to dating supportive men. Luckily, there’s no underlying assumption that without the right man, Sasha can’t be happy. Rather, she seems perfectly content with her baller lifestyle, if at times a bit lonely—a portrayal that feels healthy and accurate to real life.
While the film bills Sasha’s romance with childhood friend Marcus Kim (Park) as the main draw, the true relationship she craves is reconciliation with her parents who weren’t there for her while she was young. I wish the film delved more deeply into this storyline, but that fact that it exists already helps place the otherwise hard-to-believe romance in context. Marcus is no Prince Charming; in fact, when he initially rejects Sasha’s invitation to take their relationship to the next level, I felt frustrated. She could do so much better than the sullen, timid man they paint Marcus to be. But once we realize that he plugs into Sasha’s broader desire to reconnect with her past, her putting up with him makes more sense.
Luckily, throughout the film Sash has the friendship of her assistant Veronica (Michelle Buteau) to count on. Veronica does fall into the unimaginative “best friend” role, but at least has indications of her own life happening in the background. We know right away that Veronica is visibly pregnant, and later find out (with thankfully little fanfare) that her spouse is also a woman.
The extent to which Sasha interacts with other women pretty much ends here, but considering the strength of Wong’s screen time and having a female director behind the lens, Always Be My Maybe fares well in this category.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 85% of key cast and crew members were POC.
What Always Be My Maybe lacks in polish or depth, it makes up for in heart.
Whether it’s Vietnamese Americans rocked by seeing a rom-com heroine with the last name Tran, people who wear glasses excited at not having to be the sidekick, or Bay Area natives moved by watching a love letter to San Francisco, the general takeaway remains that Khan’s movie has made so many feel seen.
I don’t know that I felt the same aha moments, at least not to the levels I experienced through the excavations of filial piety in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) or the complex take on Asian American fatherhood in John Cho’s Searching (2018). But it would take an obstinate person not to recognize how this breezy romantic comedy exerts real social impact. Even among supporting and background characters, Always Be My Maybe recognizes that white residents are a minority ethnic group in San Francisco. Watching that reality play out onscreen feels fresh and affirming.
Veronica plays an important supporting role as Sasha’s assistant and childhood friend who happens to be a lesbian. Her pregnancy factors in as a side plot, and we catch a quick glimpse of her wife Denise (Panta Mosleh) and their newborn child toward the latter half of the film. While Veronica’s narrative generally stops there, I appreciate how her sexuality is never used for lazy jokes or low-hanging fruit. Being a lesbian is just one part of her characterization.
Mediaversity Grade: B 4.08/5
Similar to Khan’s instincts on Fresh Off the Boat, her Netflix film breaks barriers for diverse talent but offers a simplistic take on the Asian American experience. Frugal parents? Check! Authentic Asian food? Check! As an extension of that superficiality, characters also feel like canned archetypes rather than real humans, which detracts from the overall experience.
Despite my disappointment in the movie, however, I’m enormously glad to be in the minority. With an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and plenty of online buzz, Always Be My Maybe hands Netflix another rom-com hit. I’ll never be sorry to see diverse talent succeed.