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Always Be My Maybe is the next Netflix rom-com to fall in love with

Ali Wong and Randall Park shine in the charming new rom-com. 

Ali Wong and Randall Park in Always Be My Maybe.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

This is what used to come to mind when I thought of Ali Wong: a very pregnant, very funny standup, someone who’d brought me close to tears from laughing. But I can say that has since changed. She’s no longer pregnant, for one. And by the end of her charming romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe, she’d finally made me tear up a bit — but less from laughter, more from how poignant she and the film can be.

Wong is known for her scaldingly hilarious standup comedy specials like Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, both of which she notably performed while many months pregnant. Her brand of humor lands at the intersection of raunchy and uncannily insightful; her cracks at topics like parenting, gender, class, and dating involve jokes about babies defecating on parents’ chests, and why women shouldn’t ever have to give another blow job after they’ve given birth.

The humor’s tamer in Always Be My Maybe, but no less insightful. As the lead in the Netflix exclusive, Wong still mines humor from a lot of the same places and in ways that are distinctly her. But the mishmash of awkward physical humor, like sex in a compact Toyota, stoner silliness, and a heaving gasp of glorious douchebaggery from Keanu Reeves, with moments of sharp emotional insight, becomes a vehicle to get somewhere a little more wistful.

Written by Wong, co-star Randall Park, and Michael Golamco, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, Always tells the familiar story of that one that got away: For Sasha Tran (played by Wong), a mega-successful celebrity chef, that “one” is Marcus Kim (Park), and for Marcus, a stoner who repairs air conditioners with his dad, it’s Sasha.

On its surface, that storyline sounds like standard rom-com fare. Always goes deeper with it, however, to become about identity, how we see ourselves, and who we allow to see us for who we really are. And if given the second chance to be with the one that got away, Always asks plainly, what happens if that person we fell in love with has grown into someone we might not recognize?

Always Be My Maybe asks if you could fall in love with the one who got away, if given a second chance

Always Be My Maybe’s love story is one of a three-decade romance that begins with a soup.

In 1996 San Francisco, a tweenage Marcus asks his neighbor Sasha, a latchkey kid, over for some soup. He doesn’t want to have any soup left over because he doesn’t want to be the kid who comes to school with last night’s soup in a thermos. (Viewers who were that kid with the soup in a thermos know this pain too well.) Sasha — because she’s also his best friend — vows to protect him from this tragedy.

A young Marcus and Sasha in Always Be My Maybe.

Sasha’s trip to Marcus’s house becomes a regular affair over the years. Hanging out at Marcus’s house is more fun than staying at home alone, and his mother Judy dotes on Sasha too, teaching Sasha how to cook local dishes, like the fiery red stew kimchi jjigae, among other things. Marcus and his family become Sasha’s family. But after a tragic accident, which ultimately ends with not-great sex in the back of a parmesan-scented Toyota Corolla, the two lose touch after their senior year of high school.

Sasha continues on with her life, becoming an ultra-successful chef with a restaurant in Los Angeles and ones in San Francisco and New York on the way. She’s also engaged, no longer attached to Marcus. As Sasha, Wong isn’t as brazen or bawdy as she is in her standup. Here, she’s half-icy and half-skeptical, the result of a childhood, and her falling-out with Marcus, that has shown her that people she lets in end up abandoning her.

Even with her fiancé, Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), she’s guarded. It barely matters that Choi is just a vague suggestion of an antagonistic character with no discernible personality other than his antagonism — he breaks up with her and she’s crushed, but her sadness seems to be more about being single than anything Brandon brought to the table.

Sasha’s assistant Veronica (Michelle Buteau) is the only person that Sasha drops her walls for. Buteau has the splashier lines, leaning into the kind of confident self-deprecation (she refers to herself as a “fat, pregnant Meghan Markle”) and side-eyes that Wong unleashes in her standup specials. They make fun of the restaurant business together and complain about men with a snappy, winsome chemistry, enough to convince me that I want to throw money at a movie about Sasha and Veronica taking on the restaurant industry.

The opening of Sasha’s new restaurant in San Francisco coincides with two other big, life-changing events: a brief break in her engagement and a meeting with Marcus after all these years. That reunion is cold. He is there to fix her air conditioner; she’s there to subtly remind him of her success and remember whose fault it was that they fell out (his).

But remembering what they had, the family they shared together, she begins entertaining the possibility of letting Marcus back into her life.

Park is convincing as the underachieving Marcus, calibrating his performance in a way that doesn’t make him too sympathetic (which would make Sasha seem comparatively like a shrew or a scold) but also shows that he’s incredibly decent, just damaged.

Therein lies the problem for the two: As easy at it may seem for Sasha to come swooping in and begin a new life with Marcus, she’s frustrated that he’s given up on himself. He’s not the person she once knew him to be, and she knows he’s settled for less. He feels similarly about her, and how she’s become someone so closed off and someone who measures everything in business terms of success and failure. Neither is someone the other thinks they can love right now. And it grinds at their relationship, gnawing away at all the years they spent and all the years they’ve loved each other.

Always Be My Maybe has a hint of subversiveness, but folds into rom-com predictability

Inevitably, Always will be mentioned alongside Crazy Rich Asians, the 2018 romantic comedy that was the first major studio production in decades that dared to make Asian and Asian-Americans the romantic leads. Wong and Park are Asian American, like the actors in Crazy Rich Asians, as are their characters; Always Be My Maybe is a love story of similar stripes.

Crazy Rich Asians, though, took place half a world away. Always Be My Maybe takes place in California, and it’s conscious of what it means to be a person of color in an environment where there aren’t many.

About halfway through the movie, Marcus is fixing the air conditioner in Sasha’s home when she gets on a business call. He eavesdrops. When she’s finished, he makes fun of her for using her “phone voice” — the voice nonwhite people put on when talking to a coworker, boss, or client. He’s making fun of her for code-switching.

The movie comes back to this in a fight between Marcus and Sasha. She accuses him of being too scared to pursue a music career. He attacks her food, saying that she’s selling a version of Asian food for fancy white people. “Real” Asian food, he argues, is served at homes or holes in the wall, or in thermoses carried by kids at school who are made fun of for it.

These are caustic little bolts that jab at what it’s like to grow up as an Asian American person in white America. And if Netflix ever gave us detailed viewership numbers, I’d imagine there would be a large overlap between the white people who enjoy a fancy pan-Asian restaurant, the white people who love Netflix’s romantic comedies, and the white people who made fun of the food Asian kids brought to lunch.

Always is unapologetic in these barbs, offering plenty of sharp wit beneath the scrim of much lighter romance. It also turns the lens toward Asian American childhood, and the sacrifices that parents make for their kids. Sasha’s parents are too busy running their store to check up on their daughter. This leads to Sasha resenting her parents, showing that a “sacrifice” can be a monumental act of love but also doesn’t absolve anyone of the toll it can take on a relationship between parents and kids.

The problem is that some of these bigger issues can feel underwritten or undercooked. Sasha’s parents, like her fiancé, don’t really exist beyond being absent — save for a really touching gesture at the end. And not enough attention is paid to Sasha’s food, beyond that it’s good (I believe there’s a mention of a kind of dumpling) to get a good grasp of whether Marcus is actually making a point that Sasha is a sellout.

They’re more appetizers and pops of subversive wit than main dishes.

Always’s main course is, without a doubt, the chemistry between Wong and Park. The two leads are impossibly sweet and interminably charming. They’re good enough here to make you believe that the ones who get away are the ones you’re meant to be with. They pull off the idea that one grand gesture is all that it takes to fall in love again and wash away a history of starts and stops.

And an extended cameo from Keanu Reeves never hurts either.

Always Be My Maybe is now available to stream on Netflix.

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