It remains kind of amazing to me that a genre as classically white as the romantic comedy has been receptive at all to diversity and inclusion, but Always Be My Maybe is further evidence that expansion is a good thing. The latest Netflix rom-com with Ali Wong and Randall Park is consistently thoughtful and often hilarious, with a supporting turn from Keanu Reeves that oozes delightfully weird energy.
Always Be My Maybe, as did The Big Sick (which is approximately 40% rom-com), effectively walks that line between very specific cultural concepts and broadly universal messages. Every character here is shaped by their ethnic origins, familial relationships, and accepted customs, and the movie, which was co-written by Wong, Park, and Mike Golamco, is full of moments that highlight Korean-American and Vietnamese-American culture (from little things like taking off your shoes before you enter a home to larger considerations about class and wealth). And yet none of that precludes the characters’ individual desires for family, romantic love, and a sense of home. Those wants apply to nearly everyone, and the characters’ backgrounds inform their approaches to these concepts in a way that isn’t stereotypical or clichéd.
Like last year’s fantastic Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, Always Be My Maybe is set in northern California, in a neighborhood in San Francisco where Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park) grow up in adjoining rowhomes. Sasha’s parents are rarely around, busy running their store, and she’s a latch-key kid, making her own dinner every night and sitting down in front of the TV. Next door, Marcus is surrounded by love, in particular from his mom Judy (Susan Park, of Fargo and Vice Principals), who shows her care through cooking. It’s from Judy that Sasha absorbs her passion for food, learning Korean recipes from the Kims’ heritage in addition to the Vietnamese foods she grew up with.
But after being unbelievably close through their high school years, Marcus and Sasha grow apart. She becomes a celebrity chef for her popular Los Angeles restaurant, which specializes in upscale Asian fusion cuisine, while Marcus stays in San Francisco, still living in his parents’ house, still playing with his high school band. After years of not talking, they’re brought together when Sasha returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant and she unknowingly hires Marcus and his father to renovate the HVAC system in her new home. “How much money do you have now?” brightly asks Marcus’s father, scene-stealer James Saito, while Marcus suffers alongside him. But that comfort translates into Marcus and Sasha immediately falling back into old routines, razzing on each other and trading insults (which, if you’ve seen Wong’s stand-up specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, is exactly where she shines).
“You look like a homeless astronaut,” Sasha says of Marcus’s work overalls; he questions whether her food is authentic enough, or just made for rich white people. She’s aghast that he learned Cantonese for better service at a dim sum restaurant and that he won’t share dishes with her; he mocks her for using a noticeably fake voice on professional phone calls. But the two of them can only hurt each other because they still care about each other, and so the question of whether their relationship status will transform from “maybe” to “forever” consumes Always Be My Maybe.
The film from director Nahnatchka Khan (who also created Fresh Off the Boat, on which Park stars alongside Constance Wu) does so much for Asian-American representation, and what works best—aside from Wong and Park’s chemistry—are those scenes that consistently foreground these aspects of our main characters.
The methodical way Sasha cooks congee for herself, arranges her traditional meal for one, and then sits down to eat. Her distant relationship with her own parents, and her conflicted feelings when she sees how they dote on the next generation of the family. Marcus’s frustrations with sensing that San Francisco is changing from a city with a distinct Asian-American presence to one that is defined purely by tech wealth. His worry that Sasha is forgetting who she is by catering to a specific foodie demographic. Professional, personal, cultural, and social concerns are all given attention, and so Always Be My Maybe is simultaneously upholding rom-com traditions while also broadening what we expect from the genre and its characters.
Still, those genre conventions are what end up making Always Be My Maybe slightly disappointing in its conclusion. Final moments are defined by characters seemingly giving up who they are to become more of what the other person wants, and that’s a bit frustrating given that these characters are so distinct. The definition of romantic love that includes a collapse of the self feels disingenuous to what the movie says otherwise. But that feels less like a flaw of Always Be My Maybe in particular than the genre overall, and maybe we’re not there yet (aside from a film like Someone Great). Otherwise, Always Be My Maybe lets Wong’s aggressive temper shine, and gives us Park’s Marcus earnestly rapping about the future of San Francisco, and I haven’t said anything about Keanu Reeves because he is so perfect and I don’t want to spoil anything about his presence. For its Asian-American representation, its central romantic pair, and its Keanu content, Always Be My Maybe is worth your time.