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Sundance 2023: Shortcomings, The Accidental Getaway Driver

Shortcomings” is an amiable comedy about an asshole, as directed by someone who has built an on-screen reputation of being a nice guy. Randall Park (of TV’s “Blockbuster” and “Fresh Off the Boat”), making his debut here as a feature filmmaker, introduced the movie by talking about how he wrestles with wanting to be liked by all and that “Shortcomings” is a response to that. Based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine (who wrote the script), the movie offered one of the festival’s most polarizing leads in Ben (Justin H. Min), whose toxicity corrodes his relationships and progressively isolates him from the world. When certain characters told Ben off, the audience roared with applause. Maybe Park loved that. 

Making us spend every scene with Ben, the condescending, smug, and often manipulative movie-lover, is one of Park’s biggest swings in this comedy that aims for sporadic big laughs in between wincing moments. “Shortcomings” follows Ben as he hits a low point, and the movie’s investment in watching him is meant to be a road sign to his redemption, although it gets ugly. His relationship with Miko (Ally Maki) is frayed increasingly by evidence that he’s primarily attracted to white women; his job running a movie theater is heading to a dead end. And when Miko goes away for an internship in New York, the two take a break. Ben sees it as a free pass and begins pursuing the newly hired artsy blonde woman Autumn (Tavi Gevinson) and later a woman named Sasha (Debby Ryan). He gets a taste of his own medicine throughout, which usually makes him more indignant. 

Ben's one healthy relationship is with Alice (Sherry Cola, having so much fun with the role). She is a fellow jerk, but her toxic nature—how she maneuvers the clingy flings in her life—is funnier. It greatly affects the movie's overall charisma, primarily in how Ben is such a downer in comparison. “Shortcomings” is largely character-based in its plotting and comedy, with supporting roles that shine (Jacob Batalon and Scott Seiss are particularly funny as Ben’s movie-debating employees.) Some comedy is stale, like the jokes about Autumn’s lack of self-awareness as an artist. But in its ongoing discussion about race and identity, “Shortcomings” has some laugh-out-loud moments (like from Timothy Simons) as its third act shows some of Ben’s worse nightmares coming true. 

“Shortcomings” ambles like a classic city-based dramedy (lots of walking and talking), but Park makes his version of a familiar indie stand out. And if one didn’t already know that it was based on a graphic novel, one would get that sense from its poignant framing. Apartment doorways and/or street posts can offer striking visual divides between two characters, revealing how Park has an intriguing eye for making conversations cinematic. And when it’s time for the film’s explosion of egos and hurt feelings, Park guides his actors to a poignant, gut-ripping, two-hander spectacle. 

Park is on his way to finding a distinct attitude of his own as a filmmaker and kicks his debut off with a bold, laugh-out-loud statement: A parody of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which allows Ben to later be snide but eloquent about how such a movie is a cheap win for Asian-American representation in movies. But then Park goes back on this statement later in "Shortcomings" in a crowd-pleasing way, hinting that he’s not trying to shake things up too much just yet. He’s figuring out his inner Ben first. 

Much of the power in “The Accidental Getaway Driver,” a bold and graceful crime movie from director/co-writer Sing J. Lee, starts with the big, soft eyes of Long Mã (Hiep Tran Nghia), an elderly Vietnamese cab driver. One night, he is wrangled into a scary situation when his riders turn out to be three escaped convicts. One of them, Dustin Nguyen’s Tây, has a gun and speaks Vietnamese to Long Mã when instructing him not to do anything stupid. Trapped, Long Mã hardly says anything back. He’s not going to fight back; he’s not going to run away. He can only accept what will happen to him. Lee and cinematographer Michael Fernandez sometimes film Long Mã in poignant, extreme closeup, from the nose up, the steering wheel blocking the bottom of his face. Throughout this film's finely tuned emotional journey, you could almost cry just looking at his eyes in these shots.  

“The Accidental Getaway Driver” is based on a true story but does not need that context to explain how its characters become so three-dimensional and its story so captivating with humanity. Showing great promise for future characters, Lee establishes a sense of empathy for his three ex-convicts (including the frigid Aden [Dali Benssalah] and young Eddie [Phi Vu]), who are frightening and mysterious at first as they take Long Mã from one place to the next. A motel, then a pick-up, it’s one shady thing after another. The three fugitives are bonded tightly, and in a funny moment, one of them takes a picture of when they’re on the news. But there is a growing sense of sadness that gradually, naturally, comes out. Long Mã reminds them of some part of themselves, and they talk to him in a manner that recognizes how some people need to be heard to heal. 

Lee’s confident film has numerous moments of filmmaking magic, and one illustrative scene demands a note: Benssalaah’s Aden, tired of running, bares his soul and shame while sitting in the pale moonlight. The camera pushes in on him, with the glint of his eyes at first making him scary. But as the camera gets closer to his face, his tone changes and tears on his face are revealed. It encapsulates this movie's striking ideology that it applies to the other men as well: to look closer at one's fear and find intricate empathy. 

“The Accidental Getaway Driver” needs such calibration to be effective, which might be why its dreamier flashbacks are a little less moving—though the scenes are artfully conceived, tours through the tragic moments of Long Ma’s past almost feel like extra weight to what is happening in the present. Lee’s film does some wondrous things with the four characters stuck in the same situation; it's also telling how the movie does not need violence to be a deeply human thriller. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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