The first time that I can remember encountering a protest about Asian American representation was in the late ’90s, about the ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg. On the eve of the show’s Season 3 premiere, multiple Asian American groups criticized its “whitewashing” of San Francisco, whose population was then, as it is now, about one-third Asian. George Takei didn’t mince words when he accused Dharma & Greg, along with the similarly Bay Area–set Suddenly Susan—neither of which had any characters of Asian descent—of “present[ing] a version of America that’s a bald-faced lie. … This reinforces the notion that we are a white nation and feeds into delusions of white supremacy.” Activist Guy Aoki took another tack by observing that “including people of color is not a creative imposition, but a creative opportunity. … Think how many more story ideas you’ll have.”
The new Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, is as much a love letter to San Francisco’s long-ignored, now-imperiled Asian immigrant neighborhoods as it is a love story about childhood sweethearts rediscovering home in each other. (In a 2016 profile, Wong said she had long discussed with Park, an old friend, making “our version of When Harry Met Sally.”) Despite the leads’ less-than-freaky-deaky chemistry—their characters’ growing up together as best friends and next-door neighbors amplifies the sibling vibes—the hip-hop– and R&B-soundtracked film is moving, thoughtful, tender, and hysterical. And unsurprisingly for a project that doubles as an unofficial Fresh Off the Boat reunion—between director Nahnatchka Khan (that series’ creator), Wong (a former writer), and Park (a cast member), with the latter two penning the script with Michael Golamco—it’s loaded with enough culturally specific details (plastic-encased sofas, shoes taken off at the door, asking people point blank how much money they make, the healing power of kimchi jjigae) to inspire dozens of listicles cataloging them.
Apart from the noteworthiness of their being Asian American, Sasha (Wong) and Marcus (Park) initially make for a rather unexceptional rom-com duo. After a teenage back-seat sex session turns sour, the pair don’t meet again until they’re in their mid-30s. She’s become a celebrity chef in a dominatrix ponytail, known as much for her fusion dishes as for her engagement to an equally successful restaurateur (Daniel Dae Kim) who doesn’t seem all that into her. Marcus, meanwhile, has continued living with his dad (a scene-stealing James Saito), smoking weed, performing with his dork-rap band, and railing against hipster bars taking over San Francisco between handyman gigs. Sasha’s friend Veronica (Michelle Buteau) reunites them by hiring Marcus to fix the air conditioning in a house the chef has rented while preparing for the launch of her new Bay Area restaurant, aptly (by which I mean, annoyingly) called Saintly Fare. When Marcus lightly mocks Sasha after overhearing her talk about her “trans-denominational” dishes, you immediately get the sense that no one’s dared to push back on her ideas in a while.
Always Be My Maybe’s ideals about culinary “authenticity” might be about five years behind, but its relish in cutting down foodie pretensions is bracing and all too relevant. Marcus blanches at a quail-egg parfait, and his eyes just about roll out of his head when someone at his table inquires about dishes that play with the concept of time. (That someone is Keanu Reeves, playing himself in an exquisite self-parody that reintroduces the action icon as a comic actor.) Even more refreshing is the film’s unapologetic embrace of female ambition. Unlike many a rom-com in which the busy heroine finds herself settling for less once she returns to her hometown, much of the tension comes from Sasha challenging Marcus to support her aspirations rather than disparage them because they’re not what he would’ve chosen for himself. (And in contrast to many cross-class romances, Always Be My Maybe is attuned to what Marcus wouldn’t be able to afford in his efforts to woo Sasha.) She never shows much vulnerability—Wong and Park seem to have written for their considerable comic talents and around their lesser dramatic chops—but Sasha has to acknowledge her faults, too, which are poignantly rooted in a particular type of Asian American childhood defined by latchkeys and immigrant striving.
The script relies too often on Sasha’s bestie or Marcus’ father pushing the destined couple toward each other, but its smaller moments of naturalistic riffing make up for the rigid plotting. (If Netflix suggests you start watching another movie as the credits start to roll, know that one of the movie’s funniest bits comes during the credits.) Those more intimate moments gradually transform these rom-com archetypes into human beings with mature conflicts and complicated relationships to their origins. There’s no reason why Always Be My Maybe couldn’t have existed 20 years ago, but as Sasha and Marcus could say of their relationship, better late than never.