Always Be My Maybe (2019). 102 minutes. Directed by Nahnatchka Khan. Featuring Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Michelle Buteau.
Picture this: a woman in a crowd at a low-lit bar is dancing to the live band Hello Peril’s music set (which is actually a band created for the film whose music is now streamable!). She flashes her bra and completely fangirls over the lead singer. This woman, Sasha Tran, is a world-famous chef who just opened another famous, high-class restaurant in the Bay Area. Something about the two descriptions of Sasha don’t add up. If you’re in the mood to crack up and feel butterflies in your stomach at the same time, Always Be My Maybe needs to be at the top of your must-watch list. Directed by Nahnatchka Khan and written by Ali Wong and Randall Park, both of whom star in this film, as well as Michael Golamco, this movie’s main contributors are Asain-American creators who focus on Asian-American culture, specifically in San Francisco and New York City.
The storyline is centered around Wong’s and Park’s characters Sasha Tran and Marcus Kim. Starting off as childhood friends, Always Be My Maybe is your not-so-typical “girl next door” movie. The two friends support each other through childhood. When Sasha’s family is constantly at work, Marcus invites her into his warmly lit home, notably shaping Sasha’s love for cooking with constant chopping, steaming, and food prep with Marcus’s mother. As they move into teenage years, things between them become awkward after a heated night in Marcus’s beat-up car, resulting in a match of yelling at the closest Burger King. The tension is felt through the screen.
Fast-forward to adulthood and Sasha is a world-famous chef in New York while Marcus remains in San Francisco living with his dad. When Sasha comes back to California to open up another restaurant, Sasha and Marcus reconnect, though not willingly. As Sasha is getting comfortable in her new modern mansion, it’s Marcus and his dad who Sasha’s assistant and childhood best friend Veronica, played by Michelle Buteau, hires to do Sasha’s air conditioning work. Buteau does a marvelous acting job as she balances out Wong’s character. Her personality is seen on the screen as she adds a welcoming and friendly touch. As a black woman, she is a fellow woman of color and an essential character to the film who adds a new dimension to the story’s portrayal of race. Sasha embraces Marcus’s dad at first sight, but as Sasha sees Marcus, an uncomfortable combination of embarrassment and confusion fill the hallway. The movie is light-hearted but also embraces the emotional and real-life decisions individuals have to make when it comes to navigating the complications of reconnecting with those we loved in the past after wounds and long separations.
This romantic comedy tackles serious topics like ethnic positionality, feminism, women’s careers, and the messiness of romance. This chick flick — and I use this term to claim it as ours with affection, not derision — like many others in this genre, gives substantial voice to women characters. Many chick flicks may be dismissed or put even put to shame by a society where the vast majority of studio executives and film critics are male, but it is important to realize those results come from men dismissing women’s stories. This film and others in the genre hold a crucial role in showing the voice and power of women and in fulfilling many women’s fantasies.
Always Be My Maybe also handles realistic family tragedies. This movie perfectly balances the sentimentality of romantic comedies with the weight of being a modern-day romance that focuses on Pacific Asians. Khan did an exquisite job of giving power to a minority group not typically in this narrative by bringing in a cast and crew of primarily Asain-Americans and other people of color as well as queer characters.
Overall, the mise-en-scène matched the quirky tone of the movie. Vibrant but not over-saturated colors lit up the film. The editing made the transitions between timelines much like that of a scrapbook, creating the homey and welcoming feel of childhood friendship and memory-making. There were intimate close-ups when Sasha and Marcus were in his car, sitting close together. The night was dark but you could feel the California heat as if you were right there with them. Each set also described the characters. Sasha’s home matched her upscale professional personality by being clean, organized, and a clear symbol of the wealth she has amassed over the years. In contrast, Marcus’s room is dingy and poorly lit. Not so different from the room of the teenager he was years ago but still hasn’t left behind. Remnants of his childhood are seen through posters and knickknacks while his adult band-life is scattered around his room. Sets were used wisely and helped us get a deeper, visual sense of where the characters are at this point in their lives.
Back in the bar, the crowd sways, smiles, and claps along to Happy Peril’s sounds. Sasha’s smile couldn’t be wider, but what happens when the music ends? There’s a business that needs to be run, food that needs to be cooked, and lots of hungry fans that want Sasha and Sasha only. Can a balance be found in these two different lifestyles? Always Be My Maybe is a feel-good movie that you can enjoy for the comedy and romance as well as giving a fresh and nuanced look at the lives of its Asian American characters. You’ll have to watch the film to see what Sasha decides.