Producers: Josh Bratman, Michael Tadross and Josh McLaughlin Director: Eddie Huang Screenplay: Eddie Huang Cast: Taylor Takahashi, Taylour Page, Bashar “Pop Smoke” Jackson, Pamelyn Chee, Perry Yung, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mike Moh, Alexa Mareka, Domenick Lombardozzi, Jessica Huang and Eddie Huang Distributor: Focus Features
Eddie Huang’s movie about the maturation of a Queens high school basketball player is like a 1940s Warner Brothers melodrama about the immigrant experience in America—think of a young boxer (John Garfield, maybe) torn between competing familial, romantic and practical pressures—dressed up in modern Chinese-American garb. Exceedingly earnest but hokey and cliché-ridden, “Boogie” is curiously pedestrian for a film about a sport that exults in swift court action.
Taylor Takahashi is Alfred “Boogie” Chin, the son of Taiwanese-born parents (Pamelyn Chee and Perry Yung) for whom—we’re shown in flashbacks to their visit to a fortune-teller (Jessica Huang)—his arrival was unexpected and unwelcome. Nonetheless the couple stayed together, though now, when teenaged Boogie has grown into a stellar basketball player with dreams of playing in the NBA, they’re constantly squabbling over his future.
At the insistence of his pushy father, who’s been in trouble with the law, Boogie’s transferred to City Prep, a school in where he might attract more attention from college recruiters, especially since it will give him the opportunity to take the court against a chief cross-town rival, Monk (the late Bashar Jackson, aka “Pop Smoke”), whom Boogie watches intently in pickup games. His mother, on the other hand, is growing increasingly concerned about the lack of a scholarship offer, and hires a smooth-talking promoter (Mike Moh), who looks into the possibility of the kid skipping college to sign a lucrative contract to play pro ball in China.
Boogie’s a rather surly kid, unsettled by his parents rows but bound to show both of them traditional deference. He’s quick to antagonize his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) and trash the rest of his team, including his incorrigibly supportive best buddy Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), for their mediocrity. At the same time he’s attracted to Eleanor (Taylour Page) a self-confident young classmate who proves more experienced—and sensitive—than him in many respects.
In terms of milieu, “Boogie” gets a good deal right. Huang conveys the inner dynamic of a Taiwanese-American family with edgy precision—a clear reflection of his own life—and, in league with cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and production designer Chris Trujillo, captures the gritty feel of Flushing well. His ear for teen language is acute, as is his eye for their behavior (a scene in which Boogie watches Eleanor in the school weight room carries an erotic punch, and a verbal face-off between him and Monk is realistically underplayed). The background music provided by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad is apt, too.
Yet especially in its latter stages the film loses momentum and focus. A legal snafu about Boogie playing a final game and a contract he’s signed (admittedly under duress) to play professionally is swept aside to allow for a duel between him and Monk—but the staging of the ensuing contest is both formulaic and chaotic. (Joan Sobel’s otherwise adequate editing unravels here.) A revelation about Eleanor’s previous romantic life comes straight out of the teen screenwriting handbook. And when Boogie visits the very same fortune-teller his parents once did (and she seems not to have aged a day in the interim), one is likely to chortle rather than smile, especially since her pronouncement sounds like something than could have come out of a cookie.
As to the performances, they can charitably be called variable. Takahashi is uneven, sometimes convincing but just as often amateurish in his line readings, and though Page is stronger, she has off moments as well. Jackson cuts an imposing figure in what will apparently be, unhappily, his only feature appearance, and the rest of the supporting cast does mostly solid work, although Huang himself fails to impress in a small role as Boogie’s cousin Jackie. (It doesn’t help that the continuing bit he’s written for himself, involving Jackie’s constant complaints about suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, falls flat.)
Coming from the fellow who who trashed “Fresh from the Boat,” the ABC sitcom sitcom based on his memoirs, for its lack of authenticity, “Boogie” is a disappointment. It may well reflect his own experience better, but stumbles into cliché of a different kind.