The Most Revolutionary Part Of ‘Always Be My Maybe’ Is How Wonderfully Ordinary It Is

The fact that the characters in this rom-com happen to be Asian is only part of the equation.

Always Be My Maybe Netflix Review

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“For the first time, I felt like I saw myself on screen.”

“I felt the way I assume white people have always felt.”

So it goes every time a film or TV show centring a non-white character is released.  And fair enough, too — Asian characters in films were, for a long time, sidekicks, “reminding me,” as Zoya Patel writes, “that real life only happens to white people.”

In recent years, things have improved — Crazy Ex-Girlfriend bucked against society’s sexless attitudes towards Asian men by casting one as the main love interest; To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before centred a biracial teenage girl; Crazy Rich Asians was a watershed cinematic moment, peppering in slices of ordinary Asian existence among its opulent stylings.

Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe is the latest in this line of films starring, and about, Asian people.

That the trend is beginning to feel like a new normal is remarkable, signalling a slow-growing cultural change where we can begin to stop referring to these offerings as ‘diverse’, and stop seeing a thousand think pieces (just like this one) about representation every time a non-white person appears on-screen in a non-background role.

These stories are as real as any other — that the characters in this film happen to be Asian is only part of the equation.

A Pretty Typical Rom-Com

Directed by Fresh Off the Boat’s Nahnatcha Khan and co-written by Michael Golamco, and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, Always Be My Maybe is, on the surface, a pretty typical rom-com.

Set around California, it follows a pair of childhood friends, Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park), who lose touch, then reconnect years that may as well be lifetimes later. In the past, the two connected over Marcus’ mother’s cooking and D’Angelo, until one unfortunate evening tore them apart.

In the present day, Sasha is a high-flying LA chef playing to the hip white crowd with her ‘non-denominational Vietnamese fusion’ dishes, like fish sauce ice cream. Marcus works a blue-collar job alongside his dad, with whom he still lives in their hometown of San Francisco, and spends the rest of his time ripping bongs and playing in the same band he’s been in since high school — basically Asian Trent from Daria.

Spam And Rice

The film plays with, and sometimes to, the tropes and stereotypes audiences expect from Asian people.

Marcus’ artsy, loving parents have perfect American accents and his mother insists Sasha call her by her first name (unheard of!). Meanwhile, Sasha’s are neglectful.  Mr Kim’s business is in a trade that is unusual for an Asian family. Even Sasha’s impressive professional achievements are in a field that is not normally associated with Asian notions of success.

Both protagonists are depicted as agents of their own sexuality, and pairing an Asian woman with an Asian man, rather than the typical hyper-sexualised Asian woman/jacked white man narrative, still feels revolutionary, even though it shouldn’t.

Then there are the more subtle nods that anyone from a similar background will recognise — the parents’ innocent but inappropriate questions about money, a scene showing a pre-teen Sasha fixing herself Spam and rice for dinner, the careful removal of shoes before going inside.

These tiny snippets reveal the mundane minutiae of Asian families’ existences; the story is not explicitly about identity, but identity is an inextricable part of its characters, presenting what has been historically ‘other’ as everyday.

Authenticity And Food In Always Be My Maybe

The film also offers an acute commentary about class.

According to a 2018 study, Asian Americans have much higher rates of upward mobility than any other racial group in the country, but of course continue to experience long-term and institutionalised discrimination.

Bettina Makalintal writes for Vice that the film “grapples with the idea of food as a symbol of larger class tensions”. Indeed, Sasha’s attitudes towards the area she grew up in, and the foods she ate as a child, symbolise a desperate desire to conform to Western measures of respectability.

A point of conflict in the film arises when Marcus accuses Sasha of peddling ‘elevated’ Asian cuisine, rather than the authentic, homely food that is so often the emotional cornerstone of the Asian family experience. There’s something to be said, too, about the ways in which Asian food is regarded socially — namely, as cheap and hole-in-the-wall if it’s not fused with Western methods and ingredients — and what that, in turn, says about the continued influence of colonial attitudes.

For Sasha, it seems that balance is difficult to strike — how to make it big in a still largely white world while remaining true to who you are, and balancing your own personal expectations and ambitions with what it means to exist as a person from a distinct culture in a society that often tries to erase it.

The whole concept here is basically Jenny From the Block for Asians.

A Damn Good Rom-Com

That a feel-good rom-com can communicate all of these nuances, while also being hugely entertaining and barely didactic, is a real testament to the skill of its writers.

Sasha and Marcus aren’t always convincing as a good match, and the relationship seems unlikely to have long-term legs despite the happily-ever-after ending, but Wong and Park play so charmingly off each other that reality doesn’t seem to matter so much: rom-coms are about allowing an escapist vision of paradise, after all.

An extended cameo from Keanu Reeves is one of this year’s funniest, most meta gags, and the film’s daringness to skewer modern foodie and celebrity culture makes for laugh-out-loud viewing that offers astute observations about the ostentatious, disingenuous nature of ‘scenes’.

Yes, this is a film about Asians — there are only a handful of white people with speaking roles — but it doesn’t need to be thought of as a boon for diversity in order to be appreciated or enjoyed. It’s a clever, funny and endearing film that both adheres to and subverts rom-com expectations, with characters who are warm and believable, even if their situations aren’t always.

Always Be My Maybe is kind of ordinary, and really, that’s kind of extraordinary.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.