The Motel (2007)

[28 January 2007]

By Marc Calderaro

The Motel fights an uphill battle.  The independent film world isn’t exactly strapped for coming-of-age tales—especially quirky ones with Ween playing over the opening credit sequence.  Despite this setback, writer/director Michael Kang’s debut feature has many unique and genuine moments and has garnered multiple awards, including Sundance’s Humanitas Prize (previous recipients include Love and Basketball, Real Women Have Curves and Whale Rider).  And though it’s debatable as to whether The Motel “wins” this imaginary battle I’ve invented, Kang fights valiantly to win over the crowd in this quiet, puberty-hating movie.

Ernest Chin (newbie Jeffrey Chyau) is an extremely awkward, chubby, 13-year-old Chinese boy working in a pay-by-the-hour motel owned by his mother (Jade Wu).  We follow Chin’s misadventures through a very cruel age, including an unrequited love with a 16-year-old friend (Samantha Futerman), an early driving lesson from a horrible, whore-mongering motel patron (Sung Kang), and a bullied first kiss to prove his own heterosexuality.

It’s this golden premise that makes The Motel every screenwriter’s dream.  Such a sleazy setting for such an innocent boy invites endless scenes for sad and sometimes belittling humor.  A few of the best scenes involve Ernest fighting invisible ninjas by a dumpster, rubbing himself with his little sister’s stuffed rabbit, and a must-view-to-understand encounter containing the proclamation “Your dick is hard; that means you love me.” Each of these scenes seems to roll off Kang’s tongue as if he wrote them in a dream.  The script must’ve looked amazing.

But therein lay the problem, and a problem with filmmaking in general: basing a story around an awkward child requires the casting of an awkward child as the lead.  Couple that with an inexperienced child actor and the film becomes a gamble.  Here is where the movie falters.

The casting of Jeffrey Chyau is physically perfect.  He easily personifies someone who hasn’t yet grown into his body nor fully developed his personality.  (In the DVD commentary, a now-older and svelter Chyau goads “How did I look like that?!”)  Ernest Chin lies to his mother for no good reason, steals from his baby sister without remorse, and attacks his crush by thrusting his “boner” in her face.  Chyau’s almost permanent adjusting of oversized t-shirts and glasses build Ernest’s character infinitely.  But Chyau isn’t ready for the emotional investment in someone as complex as Ernest.  Scenes that require subtle or distinct acting are lost because you can almost see Kang directing, “OK, so now look down and kinda smile – but not really, ya know?”

A perfect example of this imprecision is a scene involving Ernest and Sun Kang’s character, Sam.  After examining the exterior of a found box of fried chicken, Ernest screams for about eight seconds before opening.  Sam says, “Are you OK?”  To which Ernest replies, “Yeah.  If you scream before you do things, it makes them less scary.”  This honest and cute moment looks perfect on paper, but Chyau falls short of the sharp delivery required to make it seem real, and the scene ends up lame.

The inexperience of many children actors, and the problems that brings to screen, was the reason many people had trouble with Cameron Crowe’s semi-auto-biographical-kinda film, Almost Famous.  Personally, I connected with Patrick Fugit’s portrayal of William Miller, but if you’re not on board with him, it becomes hard to enjoy a movie centered on his exploits.  Dramatic roles for children are tough.  Chyau will be able to play Ernest Chin perfectly in about 15 years.

Conversely, Jade Wu’s performance as Ahma Chin, Ernest’s mother, is just about perfect.  In my growing knowledge of Chinese-American culture, one of the most common experiences I’ve witnessed is coming to terms with seemingly unaffectionate parents.  Wu delivers this misunderstood love brilliantly, deftly revealing layers in every scene.  Ahma tells Ernest that his short story’s Honorable Mention is “not winning”, it’s merely to show all the winners someone’s work that is “not good enough to win”.  As Kang notes in the commentary, if Ernest were just a bit older, he’d understand that she’s playing with him, but instead, he takes it seriously and becomes genuinely offended.  In another scene, Ahma calls Ernest’s story “stupid” and when questioned about whether she’d read it replies, “I don’t need to read it to know it’s stupid.”  And my favorite, when Ernest utters the coming-of-age staple, “I hate you!” she banters, “Good, because I hate you, too.”  Wu’s Ahma is strong because she has to be, not because she wants to be; Ernest will learn eventually.

The Motel is a movie I had to come to terms with.  Overcoming the acting hurdle is tough; at times it makes the script seem weaker than it is.  In addition, minor hiccups reveal Kang’s shortcomings as a new director.  His “wet feet”, if you will, cause an occasional slip ‘’ but nothing serious.

The extras, involving a 15-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette and full-length commentary, add greatly to the experience.  The featurette reveals many of the caveats and pitfalls of creating a tightly budgeted independent film.  From prop fiascos to set fires to scouring the local supermarket for extras to play prostitutes, everything is genuinely enjoyable and heightened my appreciation of the movie as a whole.

The Motel is hardly a breakout smash success, but nor will it get lost in the sea of generic independents.  Its interesting characters, consistent pacing, and very watchable 71-minute length easily make it worth the time.  I look forward to Kang’s second effort, already in post-production.

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