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Life’s letdowns probed in ‘Shortcomings’

“Shortcomings” (2023). Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Tavi Gevinson, Debby Ryan, Sonaya Mizuno, Timothy Simons, Jacob Batalon, Scott Seiss, Nikhaar Kishnani, Sheldon Best, Ronny Chieng, Stephanie Hsu. Director: Randall Park. Screenplay: Adrian Tomine. Graphic Novel: Adrian Tomine, Shortcomings. Web site. Trailer.

When life doesn’t quite turn out as planned, it’s easy to become frustrated, cynical and embittered, falling into a trap of unrelenting wallowing and victimhood from which it’s difficult to escape. It’s disappointing, to be sure, when circumstances don’t pan out as hoped for. But what will staying in such a rut accomplish? An attitude like this doesn’t get us any closer to the goals we want to achieve, so what’s served by it? That’s the harsh reality examined in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings.”

Aspiring but unsuccessful filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min) frequently laments that his plans never materialize as hoped for. He’s routinely envious of other rising star directors who have managed to attain career breakthroughs with their movies, works that he perceives to be of inferior quality – mostly highly commercial crowd pleasers that he believes lack depth and meaning. He sees himself as an auteur who wants to create profound, thought-provoking projects, the kind that merit critical acclaim and artistic praise but aren’t likely to sell tickets at the box office, regrettably making them less marketable and not as attractive to would-be backers. Hence the sour grapes.

In the meantime, Ben keeps his hand in the movie business by managing an arthouse theater. It may not be the ideal job for him, but at least it keeps him around the kinds of movies that he loves and would like to make. But is that enough? He doesn’t help his own cause, either, spending much of his free time stretched out on the couch watching Criterion Collection DVDs rather than working on trying to develop his own projects. Where is the ambition in that?

If Ben’s professional underperformance weren’t bad enough, he’s constantly reminded of that by the professional success of his live-in girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), who has a satisfying position working for a local Bay Area Asian-American film festival. Miko’s job may not be everything that Ben aspires to, but he certainly sees it as something more rewarding than what he’s doing. And it probably goes without saying that the different success tracks they’re on have increasingly become a source of stress in their relationship. Miko doesn’t flaunt her good fortune over Ben, but he definitely feels like he’s been shortchanged compared to the results she’s achieved, and his constant complaining about that – and unwillingness to do anything about it – are beginning to wear on her.

It doesn’t help that the growing distance between Ben and Miko is fueling his wandering eye. He has always had a thing for blonde Caucasian women, all of whom have typically been unavailable and unattainable, but that hasn’t kept him from looking. Miko has noticed this, too, even though she’s kept quiet about it for some time. However, when the strain in their relationship reaches a point where she’s having trouble continuing to cope with it, she calls him out, a response he’s not prepared for, even though he secretly knows he can’t deny it, either.

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, right) and his live-in girlfriend, Miko Hayashi (Ally Maki, left), experience strain in their relationship when things go south professionally and romantically, as seen in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings.” Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Not long thereafter, Miko receives word that she’s been selected for a six-month internship in New York, a tremendous opportunity for her career – and one that she decides to accept. She primarily frames her decision from the perspective that it would be a good move professionally. But she doesn’t hesitate to add that taking some time apart from one another may be a wise decision for the couple, a proposal that Ben doesn’t exactly take issue with, either.

With Miko off to Gotham, Ben is on his own, and he finds himself lonely. He frequently meets with his BFF gal pal, Alice (Sherry Cola), a flamboyant, wisecracking lesbian who freely speaks her mind, especially when comes to matters of the heart. She’s aggressively seeking a soul mate of her own, and her relationship with Ben is often tantamount to an exercise in misery loves company. But Alice doesn’t hold her tongue where Ben is concerned; she can see that he and Miko are having issues that may not be resolved. In light of this, she gives him her blessing to explore other possibilities now that he’s on his own, given that he may not have another opportunity like this once Miko returns.

However, Miko’s return starts to get called into question the longer she’s away. Their phone conversations become more infrequent, and, after a while, she increasingly ignores Ben’s voicemail messages altogether, leaving his calls unreturned. Ben sees this as a signal to follow Alice’s advice and begin playing the field.

Ben leaves himself open to a variety of options, even though he’s a bit rusty when it comes to dating. Nevertheless, that doesn’t deter him, and so he begins seeking out companionship, starting with one of those previously unavailable blonde Caucasian women, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), an eccentric performance artist. However, even though she may have met his requirements in the looks department, the connection isn’t there, so he looks elsewhere. He soon meets up with Sasha (Debby Ryan), a lesbian who decides to do some experimentation of her own. But this, too, doesn’t unfold as hoped for.

Ben’s lack of dating success leaves him back where he was when Miko left. He’s also left alone more when Alice begins making some more lasting connections of her own, including one that takes her to the Big Apple to be with her girlfriend, Meredith (Sonaya Mizuno). And, when the theater where Ben’s been working closes down, he suddenly finds himself with plenty of free time on his hands. All of these changes leave Ben pining for Miko again, and, given her diminished contact with him, he’s understandably curious to find out exactly what’s going on with her and what their future might hold. So, with that, he, too, takes off for New York. Little does he know what he’s about to get himself into.

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, left) and his BFF gal pal Alice Lee (Sherry Cola, right) look for love on two coasts in director Randall Park’s debut feature, “Shortcomings,” available for streaming online. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The big question here, of course, is why is Ben’s life turning out as it is? Clearly, he’s not satisfied with the results he’s getting, and he’s seriously disappointed and frustrated by them. Creatively, he knows what he wants to manifest (or at least he thinks he does). And, personally, he’s in love with Miko; otherwise, why would he have put so much time and effort into cultivating their relationship? Or is that just wishful thinking? In fact, isn’t it possible that everything he says he wants is just a pie-in-the-sky dream or, perhaps, something he believes he’s supposed to want for himself? Indeed, maybe these alleged aspirations of his aren’t at all what he really wants. But why the disconnect between goals and outcomes?

In all likelihood, the key in this rests with what he believes, for his beliefs dictate what materializes, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our existence stems from these intangible resources. Not everyone may have heard of this school of thought, but there are many of us who understand and know how to make use of its principles to achieve what we desire. But, when it comes to Ben, it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t have a clue, and the results speak for themselves.

Because Ben is clinging to beliefs about what he thinks he wants, despite the fact that, deep down, they’re not actually beliefs in what he truly wants, the cause of his dissatisfaction should be plainly apparent. It’s like saying “I really want that sporty red convertible” when his inner self is holding out for a blue SUV. Is it any wonder, then, that the red convertible doesn’t fulfill his needs, wants and desires?

From this, one might naturally ask, how can Ben not see this for himself? And that would indeed be a good question. There could be any number of reasons for this, such as his need to get a life lesson in understanding this fundamental principle about how reality operates. Similarly, it could be that he needs to learn how to eliminate the metaphysical camouflage from his life, ridding himself of whatever is obscuring his ability to see things clearly for himself. In another vein, perhaps he simply needs to grasp how to be honest and truthful with himself, getting past an unfortunate tendency to convince himself into believing in ideas that essentially don’t suit him, a tough one for many individuals in his shoes. Or there could be other possibilities that are only known to him and that many of those on the outside can’t fathom, simply because they can’t fully appreciate or understand his particular circumstances. In any of these cases, however, the bottom line involves his recognition, comprehension and acknowledgement of his beliefs, and, until he’s able to do that, he’s likely to remain stuck in a morass of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In many regards, these conditions reflect the classic definition of insanity – that of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting but never attaining a different result. If there were such a thing as a sentence to hell, this might well epitomize it. And Ben is yet to figure that out.

So what is Ben to do? He needs to work the problem by taking several important steps with regard to his beliefs. For starters, he needs to grasp exactly what his beliefs are, not what he thinks they are. This requires embracing concepts like focus, clarity and awareness in analyzing his true beliefs and discarding those that are erroneous. To do this, he needs a good mirror to examine himself and the notions he embraces, and that’s where his friend Alice comes into play. She holds up that looking glass and kindly but assertively forces him to get real with himself. He might not always like what he sees and hears, but this is crucial if he ever hopes to master this step of the process.

When his live-in girlfriend moves across the country for an internship opportunity, aspiring filmmaker/theater manager Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, left) begins dating a potential new romantic prospect, Autumn (Tavi Gevinson, right), an eccentric performance artist, in the edgy romantic comedy-drama, “Shortcomings.” Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

One particular area of his life in which Ben needs to become more honest with himself involves his romantic aspirations. As noted previously, he has an undeniable attraction to blonde Caucasian women. But, if that’s truly the case, why is he in a relationship with an Asian woman? Is he sincerely attracted to Miko? Or is he pursuing this partnership because he believes that’s what’s expected of him from a cultural standpoint? At the same time, if he believes that a blonde Caucasian woman is the “right” choice for him, then why doesn’t his budding romance with Autumn pan out? And, when one considers what comes next for him, is he really clear about what he truly wants for himself when he begins dating Sasha, an avowed lesbian? After that, when his feelings for Miko appear to be rekindling, is he really sold on the notion of trying to patch things up with someone who’s no longer returning his phone calls? Clearly he’s drowning in a sea of contradictory, undefined beliefs, none of which seem to be in alignment with what he ultimately wants – and he can’t even bring himself to be honest on this point.

Second, Ben needs to consider other possibilities that he may have overlooked in developing the beliefs to which he adheres. This involves giving serious consideration to alternatives that he hadn’t thought about. This may prompt him to recognize faulty aspirations and, consequently, eliminate them from his beliefs. Adopting new outlooks and perspectives might thus help him turn some important corners, putting him onto more suitable paths. This could be a challenging step, but adopting it might lead to more fulfilling outcomes, probably because they dispense with limitations and impediments that don’t serve him (or us, for that matter) and place him (and us) on a path that’s more authentically aligned with our inner selves.

In particular, a corollary to this step involves taking responsibility for our beliefs and actions, especially when it comes to eliminating victimhood as an excuse for outcomes not resulting as hoped for. As the creators of our existence, the impetus and intents for what manifests, of necessity, begin with us; we’re inherently responsible for what materializes, so blaming others or outside forces when things don’t turn out as planned simply won’t cut it. And, to that end, victimization isn’t an adequate explanation or cause for what happens. We can certainly try to draw upon this notion, but it ultimately just won’t wash – it’s yet another junk belief that can’t be justified as a means to put a good face on a disappointing outcome.

As the film illustrates, Ben has some serious issues in this area. But, if he truly wants to find the source of his dissatisfaction, he needs to look to himself – and his beliefs – for answers. The sooner he realizes this, the sooner he’s likely to put his disappointments behind him, regardless of the area of his life in question. Until that happens, however, he’s again likely to stay stuck awaiting a different outcome that won’t materialize. How insane is that?

Aspiring filmmaker Ben Tanaka (Justin H. Min, right) visits his BFF gal pal Alice Lee (Sherry Cola, left) and her girlfriend, Meredith Ames (Sonaya Mizuno, center), on a trip to New York, as depicted in director Randall Park’s debut feature, “Shortcomings,” available for streaming online. Photo by Jon Pack, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The impact of this is considerable, as seen in his professional life. Ben may have grand creative ambitions, but he doesn’t appear to be able to know how to pull them together. As a consequence, he procrastinates, taking virtually no actions to move forward. But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, either, given that he hasn’t put the beliefs in place to know how to proceed. In essence, his creative vision is almost as unfocused as his expectations in his personal life, and, naturally, this keeps him stuck professionally. Unfortunately, it also leaves him jealous of others’ success, including fellow filmmakers and even Miko, even though her goals don’t match his per se. Consequently, he again falls back into victimhood and an inability to be honest with himself about how to advance. Poor Ben. As noted previously, he really has his work cut out for him.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that he can’t turn things around. But, if that’s to happen, he genuinely needs to overcome his shortcomings. To address this, he must dismiss the letdowns that he believes life has dealt him. However, to do this, he must also realize that those missteps were of his own making – and that he’s the only one who can fix them. If he’s unwilling or unable to accomplish this, the future may not be what he hopes it will be – and that’s more than just a shortcoming.

So what is Ben to do now? That’s what he’s about to find out. However, as this unconventional romantic comedy-drama shows, this unforeseen time by himself proves to be a dual-edged sword, an opportunity for newfound personal freedom but also a time in which he’s forced to get his life back on track, a dicey struggle in many respects – not to mention one filled with ample unanticipated fallout. This smartly written offering is full of eye-opening, unexpected plot twists, but they never feel forced, and they’re often quite revelatory about the protagonist’s true nature. The picture successfully and intriguingly combines multiple genres, including romantic comedies tinged with elements typical of character studies, matinee dramas and hard-hitting social commentaries. Debut director Randall Park has also infused this release with an array of biting one-liners and a pervasively edgy quality when it comes to the true nature of relationships, an attribute not unlike that found in films like “(500) Days of Summer” (2009), “Bros” (2022), “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), and even such Woody Allen projects as “Manhattan” (1979) and “Annie Hall” (1977). What’s more, “Shortcomings” is not afraid to show the unflattering sides of otherwise-likable characters, a theme frequently seen in the movies of filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener. Because of all this, there’s a certain brusqueness to the narrative and the characters that some viewers might find off-putting, but that’s also one of this production’s innate beauties, serving up an unbridled authenticity not often seen in romcoms. Even though this release had a brief theatrical run late last summer, it’s largely gone unnoticed. Thankfully, however, it’s now available for streaming online and makes for a frank but refreshing watch compared to many other comparable offerings, one that gives us all a lot to think about.

When we come upon aspects of ourselves that we personally dislike, we may try to disavow them. We might pretend they don’t exist, or we may go out of our way to convince ourselves (and actually come to believe) that these excuses are indeed genuine. And, if all else fails, we may seek to justify our circumstances by blaming others, retreating into victimhood knowing that such rationales aren’t valid, even if we try to convince ourselves and others to the contrary. But, in the end, there’s no escaping the truth if we hope to make things right. Failing to do so can be quite a shortcoming indeed – the only thing worse being the consequences that can arise from such a failure. Let’s hope we never have to find that out.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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