Review: Messy but moving, ‘Boogie’ puts an Asian American basketball player front and center

Taylor Takahashi, left, and Taylour Paige in the movie "Boogie."
(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sex scene — or presex scene — quite like the one that arrives halfway through “Boogie,” Eddie Huang’s fascinatingly thorny new drama about a high school basketball star. That would be Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), who’s nervous about losing his virginity to his girlfriend, Eleanor (Taylour Paige); when she urges him to lighten up, he worries that “my d— might be trash.” It’s hardly the first time a guy’s penis-size anxiety has taken centerstage in a movie, but this one isn’t aiming for the usual laughs, in part because there’s nothing usual about its choice of a Chinese American male protagonist. Boogie knows he’s up against years’ worth of racist below-the-belt stereotypes. “Boogie” the movie knows it too.

The scene ends on a tenderly reassuring note before discreetly cutting away; the next time we see Boogie, he’s striding through Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, with the faintest hint of a swagger in his step. He’s used to moving with confidence. A rising star eyeing a foothold in the world of college athletics, he’s recently transferred to a new high school and a new team that will pit him directly against Monk, New York City’s reigning street-basketball champ. (Monk is played, in a first and sadly final screen performance, by Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke, who was killed in February 2020.) Beating Monk in front of the right recruiters could earn Boogie a scholarship to a top university and bring him one step closer to fulfilling his dreams of NBA stardom.

It’s a familiar setup approached from a less-than-familiar angle, and “Boogie,” ambitious and clumsy by turns, cycles rapidly through the conventions of the teen sports melodrama, with an eye toward fulfilling some and subverting others. It has friendship and romance, testosterone-fueled banter and high-stakes game play, all of it nimbly shot by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz and set to an energetic wall-to-wall soundtrack of hip-hop and teen pop. But it’s also a deliberate rewiring of the coming-of-age story, something the movie self-consciously acknowledges in a few clever-clunky scenes from English class, where Boogie denounces Holden Caulfield as a figure of insufferable, unrelatable privilege.

High school basketball players
Jorge Lendeborg Jr., left, Taylor Takahashi and Pop Smoke on the court in “Boogie.”
(David Giesbrecht)

Holden’s parents, of course, are conspicuous by their absence. By contrast, Mr. and Mrs. Chin (Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee) weigh heavily on Boogie’s journey, giving it emotional depth and dramatic tension — some of it heavy-handed, some of it brutally on-point. They’re the first characters we meet, in an 18-years-earlier prologue that shows them visiting a fortune teller (Jessica Huang, the director’s mother) and making the fateful, perhaps ill-advised decision to marry for the sake of their unborn son. Played in their younger years by Ren Hsieh and Claire Hsu, they were a stormy couple back then and they’re even stormier now, with a bad habit of wielding their son as a weapon. Boogie himself has always been closer to his dad, a business owner and ex-con who treats him gruffly but fondly, and who crucially shares his love for the game.

Boogie’s mom, by contrast, is resentful and cold, and she regards the two men in her life with impatience at best and undisguised contempt at worst. She isn’t the first domineering mother to pop up in Huang’s body of work, including his 2013 autobiography, “Fresh Off the Boat,” and the popular ABC sitcom it inspired (which Huang alternately disavowed and grudgingly embraced). But Mrs. Chin is more than just a jokey riff on tiger-mom stereotypes, and her scenes with Boogie and his dad add up to a harrowing portrait of dysfunction. There’s nary a trace of warmth or tenderness in Chee’s performance, and there’s nothing funny about the ruthlessness with which Mrs. Chin makes her own plans, at one point bringing in an outside professional (Mike Moh, who played Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”) to manage her son’s future.

I won’t spoil the outcome of that development, except to note that it throws Boogie’s already precarious sense of identity into even further disarray. Takahashi, a Japanese American first-time actor whom Huang met playing basketball in Los Angeles, deftly suggests a young man at war with his many influences. He bears the scars of his parents’ messy marriage and also the marks of his culturally bifurcated New York upbringing. At home he shows deference and respect for the traditions he was raised with. At school he’s a class clown, goofing around with his best friend, Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and a bit of a diva on the court, which more than once lands him in trouble with his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi).

Pop Smoke in the movie "Boogie."
(Nicole Rivelli / Focus Features)

He isn’t the easiest of characters to warm to, which strikes me as proof of his persuasiveness. The camera doesn’t always love Boogie but it’s warily fascinated by him. At times his defiant, downright punchable smirk brought me back to my high school days, where my own largely Asian American circle of friends included a few Boogie types — not basketball players, per se, but guys who felt stonily alienated from the larger culture, and who quietly resented the model-minority ethos that the rest of us, consciously or not, were trying to uphold. In one scene Boogie takes a jab at Jeremy Lin, dismissing him as “a model-minority Jesus freak.” But then, the movie reminds him, models have their unmistakable uses: In one scene, Boogie rewatches Michael Chang’s 1989 French Open victory over Ivan Lendl, an event his dad describes as “the greatest moment in Asian American history.” (My own tennis-obsessed dad might have agreed.)

Boogie knows his strengths but not where he belongs. Eleanor does her part to nudge him toward an answer: Played by Paige with the same verve she brought to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and the forthcoming “Zola,” she supports and validates Boogie while also inoculating him against self-pity. He isn’t the only person, she reminds him, with a difficult family, an uncertain future and a conflicted sense of cultural identity. Their prickly but tender relationship represents its own kind of cinematic ideal, a vision of biracial coupledom still rarely seen in American movies. It also stands in pointed contrast with Boogie’s looming showdown with Monk, who treats his challenger with openly racist disdain (he calls him “Eggroll”). That gives the story a point of contact with the tensions that have flared between Black and Asian American people over the years, though to its credit, it’s too messy and unresolved to be reduced to those tensions alone.


“Boogie” tries to appreciate its own contradictions, and also to complicate the audience’s expectations. It positions Boogie as an underdog of the underrepresented, a potential breakout star in an arena where the odds are stacked against him. But it also resists the temptation to turn him into an easy emblem of success, while neatly sidestepping the feel-good uplift and predictable, reconciliatory outcomes that tend to hold sway in the sports-movie genre. The story concludes on a downbeat note that returns us once more to the past, and reminds us that Boogie’s journey isn’t his alone. Only when we know our story’s beginning, perhaps, can we begin to guess how it might end.


Rating: R, for language including sexual references throughout, and some drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Starts March 5 at Mission Tiki Drive-in, Montclair and in general release where theaters are open