Like a teenager struggling to stick out and fit in at the same time, Michael Kang makes his feature debut with "The Motel," a well-worn coming-of-age tale enlivened by pungent detail and a sharp visual sense.
Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau) is a tubby, awkward 13-year-old Chinese American who cleans rooms at his mother's suburban no-tell motel. He's also a budding writer who's just won "honorary mention" in a short-story contest, but his unforgiving mother, Ahma (Jade Wu), is not impressed. Honorable mention, she says, "is worse than losing." Although it's inevitable that Ahma's stern facade will crack, Kang, adapting Ed Lin's novel "Waylaid," lays the sentiment on sparingly.
Abandoned by his father, Ernest finds a substitute in Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a self-assured Korean American who squires an endless succession of prostitutes past Ernest's awestruck eyes. But Sam isn't much of a father figure: He pays his bill with a canceled credit card, puts Ernest behind the wheel when he's too drunk to drive and dispenses advice on the order of "Don't ever let anyone tell you porn is bad."
Sam's cocksure posturing is thrilling to Ernest, whose post-tryst cleanups have done little to prepare him for the onset of puberty, as his painful flirtation with a pretty older girl (Samantha Futerman) makes abundantly clear. But even Ernest sees through Sam's act after a visit to the self-styled playboy's former house, where Sam's estranged wife has already started rearranging the furniture.
In the kind of offhand but carefully considered touch that lifts "The Motel" above a crowded pack, an anxious Ernest, whom Sam has ill-advisedly brought along on his home invasion, catches sight of a rack of carpet slippers, then looks unsteadily at his own feet. Perhaps he's worried about leaving tracks or wondering if stepping into Sam's shoes is really such a good idea. Thankfully, "The Motel" doesn't make too much of such fleeting moments. Ernest won't understand their import for years to come, and it's all right if we wait a little while as well.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Palm Pictures release. Writer-director Michael Kang. Based on the novel "Waylaid" by Ed Lin. Producers Matthew Greenfield, Miguel Arteta, Gina Kwon, Karin Chien. Director of photography Lisa Leone. Editors Colleen Sharp, David Leonard. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. at Fairfax Avenue (323) 655-4010; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks at Union Avenue), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.