Charming and barbed, "The Motel" is the sort of tiny little independent film that barely escapes Sundance, and its appearance at the Kendall -- probably for the amount of time it takes you to read this sentence -- is extremely welcome. A deadpan coming-of-age story, it follows a group of Asian - Americans clinging to the bottom rung of the American dream: "Where do I fit in?" is the question that obsesses everyone here, from the 13-year-old protagonist to the grown-up lost souls around him.
Adapted from Ed Lin's highly regarded 2001 novel "Waylaid," Michael Kang's film is set at a rundown motel on the outskirts of some major metropolitan area. Could be New Jersey. Could be anywhere. For Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau) , it's nowhere. His father's long gone, his Chinese immigrant mother (Jade Wu) is an embittered wraith, his little sister (Alexis Kapp Chang) is a pest.
Overweight and bespectacled, Ernest cleans the rooms, mans the night desk, and writes short stories in an exam booklet. He sent one in to a contest and won an honorable mention, but his mother threw the notification letter away. "Waste of time," she barks. "Honorable mention not winning. That worse than losing."
"The Motel" gets cooking when the endless parade of working women and cheating husbands is interrupted by the appearance of Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a charismatic young Korean-American businessman on a fast downward spiral. Bereft of his spouse and possibly his job, Sam comes to ground in Room 15, subsisting on alcohol, leftover Popeye's chicken, and the kindness of Ernest, who has never met anyone like him. The older man teaches the boy to drive and gives him advice in matters of the heart -- horrific advice, but who else is offering?
Kang balances the uproariously comic with the profoundly sad, and the two tones amplify each other with subtlety. "The Motel" offers a jaundiced but knowing window on the Asian - American experience: Even if you're as assimilated as Sam or Ernest's slightly older heartthrob, a teenage Chinese restaurant waitress named Christine (the excellent Korean-American actress Samantha Futerman), you're still on the outside looking in. The longing glance Christine sends a local Caucasian skater-boi says everything, as does his uncomprehending stare back.
The language and situations in "The Motel" are salty, as befits a story about a 13-year-old desperate to get on with it. (Sam, by contrast, is desperate to be a kid again; that's why he and Ernest hit it off so well.) The movie depicts a darkly funny fallen world, mourned by Nathan Larson's droopy alt-rock chords on the soundtrack, but it does hint at the possibility of writing oneself out of adolescence and into adulthood.
Kang breaks no new narrative ground here, and that's OK; his portrayal of ethnic discombobulation is fresh and freshly seen. "The Motel" gives the lie to all those mainstream teen sex comedies starring happy, horny gwailos . In his low-fi way, Kang has made an "Asian - American Pie," and it has the sting of truth.