Nothing short of charming and clever, Always Be My Maybe is Netflix’s latest addition to the streaming site’s feel-good roster of films. Written by Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Michael Golamco, Always Be Maybe hardly reinvents the rom-com (romantic comedy) formula. It gives you exactly what you want from it but in a more “Asian experience”.
The plot has your simple and typical rom-com tropes: Marcus (Randall Park) and Sasha (Ali Wong) have been friends since childhood, the two friends harbour hidden feelings for each other; they grow apart, one of them becomes successful, the other an underachiever, they meet again, and are driven to confess their feelings for each other. It’s your typical “will they, won’t they” rom-com formula but in a fresher context: The story hinges on the experience of growing up Asian in the San Francisco Bay area from the late 90s to the present day.
Always Be My Maybe is as real as any other – having Asian characters and references to its rich culture is only part of the equation.
We are taken to the charms of San Francisco in 1996 where Shasha’s parents were often absent, busy with running a store and leaving their only child to take care of herself. As a result, Sasha has made her self at home with Marcus’ family, where she picked up her passion for food as taught by Marcus’ mother, Judy.
Fast forward to their teenage years, specifically to the sudden death of Judy, that somehow brought Marcus and Shasha’s friendship to a downward spiral. After an awful sing-along to D’Angelo’s How Does It Feel, losing each other’s virginity in the backseat of a Toyota Corolla and an FO moment at Burger King, we are fast forwarded to 2019.
Shasha is now the Oprah Winfrey of the Culinary world. She makes it big in New York and yet we see how she tries to balance trying to be true to who she is in in a still largely white world. It’s worth noting how Shasha is allowed to fully make it big when it comes to her dreams and her perfectionist tendencies without having to compromise it not one bit as it used to be the opposite with women in the rom-coms we’re used to.
Meanwhile, Marcus adults into an underachieving air conditioning unit fixer. He stayed in San Francisco working alongside his charming dad (James Saito) by day and plays in a struggling band (Hello Peril) at night. His lack of ambition doesn’t necessarily make him less of the person he is, he’s simply dedicated to staying close by his dad – the usual Asian child tendency for parental responsibility—a little push out of his comfort zone is all he needs.
Without a lot of guesswork, a reunion between Sasha and Marcus is bound to happen, the sparks reignite and you may insert predictable, manufactured crisis here.
Ali Wong and Russell Park, who had been working together for years in the San Francisco stand-up comedy scene, are both solid, capable, and charming in delivering their roles. Shasha and Marcus aren’t convincingly a good on-screen match, but the hint of genuine off-screen friendship between Wong and Park adds to the films many charms.
There’s a genuine build of characters as they go through success, loss, hurt with the perfect amount of comedy. The film plays with the tropes and stereotypes audiences expect from Asian people without being inappropriate or offensive – not compromising humour.
And oh, Keanu Reeves makes an overstaying cameo – one whose stay is very much welcome as he satirises his reputation as “one of the nicest actors in Hollywood”. Keanu Reeves plays himself in this film, but an over-the-top, narcissistic version of himself with an improvised script on the worshipful culture of fame. His appearance makes a worthy recognition to be among this year’s funniest gags. Reeves’ short-lived moment in the film is meant to be relived forever through a song Park wrote called “I Punched Keanu Reeves”.
As meme-worthy Keanu Reeves’ scenes were, what resonates for a probably a lot of audiences would be the delightful moments of relatability – the sense of being seen – not just because of its Asian culture reference, but mostly because of how it nails the Asian heritage too. From moments where they don’t know how to say hello or goodbye to one another, to kids taking off their footwear before entering the house, one is bound to have “that’s too real” in many moments of the film.
Always Be My Maybe celebrates familial relationships in a way Asians know best – subtle and expressed through acts rather than language. It gives us a film with four Asian parents who are quirky and lovable in their own ways. They are parents we recognise, we know them, we understand them and it’s a rare gem to see older Asian characters not be depicted as caricatures.
The film proves how it takes not only just diverse casting to cater to the need for inclusive representation, but it should dive deep into representing diverse cultures too. And Always Be My Maybe’s refusal to portray the Asian American culture in its template makes this ordinary rom-com extraordinary. It understands that in SF Chinatown you’d be speaking Cantonese, and all in all, it’s an ode 90s bay area, and the Asian Americans who grew up embracing that culture. And all in all, it has done a great job.
Netflix yet again owns the kind of movies that is meant to be watched on the floor, in your most comfortable clothes and a good cold pizza (or in this case, leftover Chinese takeout) on hand. And maybe, just maybe, Always Be My Maybe prepares us for steady return of the romantic comedy – and an inclusive one at that.