Sundance 2023: “Shortcomings” Tries To Explore Desirability Politics But Falls Short

This review of Shortcomings contains mild spoilers.

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Ben (Justin H. Min, After Yang) is a film snob, a struggling filmmaker, and an asshole. He is the manager of a local cinema — and has an obsession with blonde white women. He checks them out when he’s out with his girlfriend, only watches porn that features them, and hires them at his job even if they are unqualified. He has a whole-ass girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki, Toy Story 4), who he isn’t really supportive of and doesn’t seem to like very much. She’s Asian, politically driven, and high-key tired of his shit. After a big fight where she calls him out and asks him to finally admit that he doesn’t really want her, she heads to NYC for a gig. He uses the time to explore his desire for white women (even though they aren’t broken up) and tries to figure out why he wants what he wants.

I promise you this isn’t my read on the film lol, it’s literally in the description notes of this Randall Park directorial debut. Ben has a best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola, Good Trouble), who is a dyke that is almost as insufferable as he is, two peas in a pod and all that. She’s in the closet to her family, not big on monogamy or honesty, and leaves broken hearts all around town.

A still from the movie "shortcomings"

These characters sound horrible, but they are meant to be; as you watch, you might despise them more and cringe at their decisions. When it came to Alice I actually dug that she wasn’t the greatest person, but the character (how she was written and her arc) felt lazy. The marketing made it seem like her story of using him as a beard was going to be central to the plot. In reality, it was mentioned but not really explored, BUT there is continuous dykin’ with the character so THERE IS THAT! She also wasn’t used as someone’s moral compass so THERE IS ALSO THAT!

Internalized racism is tough and it sucks. The amount of unlearning you have to do is wild, but you have to want to do it. This movie is written in a way where it’s like they don’t want us to think internalized racism is the issue Ben is facing, he just likes what he likes and it’s everyone else that’s making it a big deal. If that’s the case, fine — but make THAT movie. The movie where he isn’t gaslighting his girlfriend when she questions him on his desire, but instead tells her she’s right and they break up. The movie where he isn’t feigning anger when people stare at him when he’s holding hands with a white woman, but instead being happy when they stare because they think he has “leveled up” (his words not mine). Basically what I’m saying is, stand on your shit.

This movie feels too scared to say what it really wants to say. If they made a movie where the vibes were “I only desire white women and it has nothing to do with internalized racism and IDGAF what you think”, folks would be like, “Wow that’s weird but go off I guess.” I would also be like, “That’s weird” — but I’d respect it a whole lot more, ‘cos in its current state it’s tiptoeing around desire, fetishism, hypocrisy, and disposability, and it’s unnecessarily confusing.

I would like to know if I were going to see a movie where someone has an obsession with white women (again, this is not my take on what happens in the film! It is LITERALLY in the film description that gets sent out), is mean to his marginalized girlfriend, and then gets it chalked up to growing pains but… that’s just me.

It’s a new version of an old subject that has been talked about in certain communities forever. It’s literally a tale that’s old as time — but the acting is killer — so I guess it’s worth a watch.

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Shelli Nicole

Shelli Nicole is a Detroit-raised, Chicago-based writer. Her work has appeared in Bustle, HelloGiggles & Marie Claire. She is terrified of mermaids and teenagers equally.

Shelli has written 18 articles for us.


  1. I completely agree with your take Shelli, I was also so surprised by the turn in this movie! And not in a good way, unfortunately. It almost felt like the first 15-20 minutes were a different (and in my opinion, stronger/more interesting) script.

    That said, I really do love Sherry Cola’s comic timing — she has a gift to make it seem effortless, and I would love to see it in a project worthy of her talents.

  2. I would love to see a more in depth review of the film — particularly by an Asian American writer who has read the Adrian Tomine graphic novel this is based on. I’m making some assumptions that the writer of this post does not fit that description, but that’s based on the content of the post itself, since neither is mentioned. Tomine’s graphic novel is excellent and it fleshes out several different experiences of, and ways of coping with, internalized racism as an (East) Asian American — through the stories of Ben, Alice, and Miko. Beyond what is described in this review of the film, the graphic novel shows more of Miko’s story — and although she speaks out and is engaged in certain forms of political action (or performance), events reveal that she is also guilty of letting unexamined internalized racism drive her actions. Maybe the film isn’t as successful in bringing these aspects to life, or maybe the writer of this review is just looking for something that is a bit more dogmatic, less messy and ambiguous, but I’d love some more in depth reflection afforded to this film… And would be glad to see further celebration of everything that the folks who made this film are bringing to American cinema, putting Asian Americans on screen in all our complex and imperfect personhood.

    • Shelli Nicole here, Culture Editor here at AS and writer of this piece.

      I haven’t read the novel although am familiar with it and I am not Asian American. I wasn’t looking for “more” of anything, and especially wasn’t looking for it to be less messy. M

      I simply didn’t enjoy the film because I FEEL the message fell short in a film that is trying to talk through a few topics in a roundabout way.

      Me not enjoying the film does not mean I don’t celebrate the folks behind and featured in the film – all these things can be felt at the same time.

      As far as another review from an Asian writer familiar with the novel, I feel you on that. I was selected as part of the PII from Sundance (something that is not affiliated with AS) and decided to do some reviews on films I was excited for here, and most films at Sundance as you may know aren’t available to everyone for some time if at all.

      So if it becomes available I of course will have a writer that is Asian and hopefully familiar with the novel do some coverage, as I’ve done in the past as much as is possible with pop culture coverage here on the site, because I know the importance of hearing the voices of your folks chat about shit that was made for and by your folks.

      In the meantime there are some reviews on the interwebs from Asian writers who feel differently and similar to me, and are familiar and unfamiliar with the novel that could give you the more in depth and connected vibe you’re looking for i’m sure.



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