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Young Americans

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Shortcomings (2023)

Adrian Tomine bounds up the list of comics creators whose books have been turned into films without disastrous consequences, having inspired two decent ones in succession. "Paris, 13th District" reworked some of his stories through the lens of Jacques Audiard and Céline Sciamma, and moved them a fair distance from the source. But now "Shortcomings," for which Mr. Tomine did the adaptation himself, is a direct translation from one medium to the other. Characters, dialogue, and for the most part droll social commentary all survive the trip from Mr. Tomine's 2004-2007 comics essentially intact.

Which means that the protagonist is as deliberately hard to admire as he was the first time round, an Asian-American whose insecurities and fragile self-image compel him to tell everyone else when he thinks they're wrong, for their own good, all the time. Does Ben (Justin H. Min) want to assimilate, or does he hold people who already have done to invisible standards that shift with the wind? Or is it just the curse of total honesty? Compulsively chasing the blonde white women of Berkeley, a habit that has already depth charged his relationship with Miko (Ally Maki) even if he hasn't noticed yet, Ben is brusque and exasperating and only has a social life because he's young and cute and has some winsome vulnerability about him.

And no one else is perfect either. The departure of Miko to New York brings consolation from long-time confidante Alice (Sherry Cola), who can't tell her own Chinese family that she's gay but who understands Ben perfectly. "Being supportive is not really your brand," she notes, accurately. On the rebound Ben tries to hook up with Autumn (Tavi Gevinson), who meets Ben's white and blonde requirements but also makes modern art out of photographs of her toilet bowl; and Sasha (Debby Ryan) whose fluid bisexuality offends Alice to the core. "Just a Trendy Dabbler," snaps the confirmed lesbian with venom.

The layers of racial and class frictions in the film are the same ones Mr. Tomine put in the book, although he adds Quentin Tarantino's use of Bruce Lee in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" as a recent bone of contention. Despite a raft of supposedly horny characters the film is chaste in the modern manner, at least until Alice finds the dyke of her dreams in Meredith, played by Sonoya Mizuno with her own British accent intact. The gregarious Alice grinds to a swooning halt around Meredith, bewitched by the vowels of southern England.

Meanwhile the death of cinema goes on in the background, when the rep cinema where Ben works closes down; he watches Truffaut and Ozu on DVD while everyone else watches something a lot like "Crazy Rich Asians." Ben might be a fossil or a snob or he might just be confused about things that aren't so confusing; but the film can't bring itself to disparage him as much as the comic did or deny him the hope of redemption. Which says something about how the two different art forms go about their business, and also about how the tonnage of Ben's on-screen moaning is already giving Larry David a run for his money.


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