Eddie Huang’s Coming-of-Age Drama Falls Flat

Eddie Huang’s feature debut skillfully plays with genre conventions through a Chinese American lens but lacks a key piece of casting.

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige in Boogie

It’s been said that for any director, casting is half the battle. If you can land the right actors in the right roles and get strong performances, then you’re already halfway to a success. Unfortunately for writer-director Eddie Huang, that’s where his feature debut Boogie falters badly. The film rests on the shoulders of Taylor Takahashi, whose work in Boogie is his sole screen credit to date. Takahashi has to bear the full weight of the film’s emotional pathos as his character navigates between trying to appease everyone in his life and his own ego. Boogie is a film with a chip on its shoulder, and that gives Huang’s picture its edge, but all of its strengths recede when Takahashi doesn’t carry the emotional heft the film requires.

Alfred “Boogie” Chen (Takahashi) is a high school basketball star whose father (Perry Yung) believes is on track to the NBA. To get there, Boogie transfers to City Prep so he can ultimately play against the city’s biggest prospect, Monk (Pop Smoke). If he can beat Monk, then there’s a chance at a scholarship at a Top 10 school and a path to the NBA. However, Boogie’s mother (Pamelyn Chee) is more skeptical about these chances and seeks to find another way to use Boogie’s talents for the family’s financial security. Thrown between these competing desires, Boogie struggles to appease both his parents as well as keep his temper in check, but he does find solace with classmate Eleanor (Taylour Paige). However, Boogie continues to see his world as a series of obligations that he can’t possibly meet to make everyone happy.

Taylor Takahashi and Eddie Huang in Boogie
Image via Focus Features

What I like best about Boogie is that Huang is actively working against a coming-of-age story like The Catcher in the Rye, a text which is assigned to Boogie and his AP English classmates (I’ll let it slide that Catcher is kind of below what would be assigned to high school seniors taking AP English). The cultural clashes and obligations that Boogie faces are a far cry from Holden Caulfield and putting Boogie’s kind of story on screen is a success for Huang. The film shows Boogie caught between family loyalty and his own desires. Boogie knows he has the talent and the skill, but he’s guided by trying to do right by his family even if he believes that his family doesn’t always know how to do right by him.

But all of this comes back to the lead character, and Takahashi never plays the levels the film requires. Boogie is a good character but undone by a weak performance. I don’t say this to take a shot at Takahashi, but Boogie lives or dies by its lead, and Takahashi never brings much emotional depth or nuance to the title character. Whether Boogie is about to lose his virginity or trying to protect his parents, there’s no vulnerability to this performance. That’s fine when Boogie is all swagger on the court or wooing Eleanor, but it’s in the smaller moments where this character needs to live, and the film never gives us that. Without a strong central performance, Boogie becomes nothing more than a story about a conflicted Chinese American basketball star who needs to win the big game.

Taylor Takahashi and Pop Smoke in Boogie
Image via Focus Features

The story surrounding Boogie is quite strong, and I’d be eager to see Huang take on another project since he clearly has a firm point of view, knows how to play with narrative tropes, and isn’t afraid to make strong visual choices in service of his characters. But with Boogie, he has made a serious error by casting Takahashi, who instead of coming off like a real teenager grappling with a turning point in his life becomes nothing more than a platform to rest the film’s ideas upon.

Rating: C

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