This one did something for me I wasn’t expecting it to. On the surface, Boogie is a sports movie we’ve seen dozens of times: a kid from Queens, New York, is great at playing basketball for his high school team and has dreams of one day playing in the NBA. But first, he’s got to get an all-expenses-paid scholarship at an elite college to begin that journey. While he’s an okay student, he has a lot of pressures in his life that threaten to derail him, like parents who are always fighting about what’s best for their son, on-court rivals and a new girlfriend who is unlocking emotions in him that some feel are distracting. Now imagine all of that but the lead character is a Chinese-American kid named Alfred “Boogie” Chin (played by first-time actor Taylor Takahashi), and his mother and uncle are colluding to sign him away to play basketball for two years in China.
Boogie is a passion project from writer/director Eddie Huang, the creator of the fantastic series “Fresh Off the Boat,” another story about the burden of expectations that play a particularly crushing role in the lives of young Asian-Americans. Mother (Pamelyn Chee) and father (Perry Yung) want very different things for their son, and when Boogie’s mom and Uncle Melvin (Mike Moh) blackmail her son into signing a contract to play professionally, it crushes the boy’s spirit and will to even finish out his team’s first winning season in years. He’s a recent transfer and wanted to play for this team because they regularly have scouts visit, but the team’s big game is put in danger when Boogie’s life is ripped apart.
Boogie talks a big, playful game with his friends, and he even manages to impress Eleanor (Taylour Paige, recently seen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the upcoming Zola), and the two start dating. Their romance is the heart and soul of this film, and there’s a sex scene (more like a pre-sex scene) between them in which Boogie expresses doubts about her expectations of certain parts of his anatomy that is so honest and funny—I truly can’t think of another moment like it in a teen movie. They have their rough patches, but she is clearly behind him whatever he decides. But when Boogie finds out that she once dated Monk (the late rapper Pop Smoke, who died shortly after shooting the movie), a rival player from another school, he gets preemptively jealous, feeling she lied to him. But it’s clear he is also trying to not get his heart broken when he has to tell her he’s going to China.
When the team’s final game is called off when the two teams start fighting on the court even before the first tipoff, they agree to meet off school grounds at a famed street-ball court, and finally Boogie and Monk get to square off. Takahashi brings a quiet but spirited presence to Boogie, and there are times when he has to express several emotions and frustrations in the same moment, which he pulls off admirably. He’s not a great actor yet, but he also is new enough to it that he hasn’t learned any bad habits as a performer. In the basketball scenes, he’s not worried about making sure the camera gets his good side; he just wants to look like the best player on the court, which he absolutely does.
The film is also about a kid forced to grow up fast and make decisions he is clearly not prepared to make. And the more people pull him away from his NBA dream, the more he resists them while also losing his will to push harder. Filmmaker Huang is clearly drawing from his and Takahashi’s lives (the two met on the court years ago in the Bay Area, and Takahashi was Huang’s personal assistant for a time), and that realism shines through a great deal of Boogie. The film proves that sometimes knowing where the story is going isn’t an issue if the journey to that ending is interesting and unique. By the end, I’d fallen for these characters, and I’d love to see where they are five years down the road. One gets a sense that the twists and turns in their lives aren’t necessarily done.
Boogie is now playing in select theaters. Please follow CDC, Health Department and venue regulations if attending an indoor screening.
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