Friday, July 07, 2006


The Motel*

Both adoring and glib about the sophisticated tribulations of preteen social anxiety, The Motel is an acceptably confrontational moral tale for the anti-nuclear family. It follows the inquisitive subjectivity of 13-year-old Ernest (versatile newcomer Jeffrey Chyau), an uncomfortably chunky child in a fatherless Chinese-American family where running the seedy title hotspot for horniness is a routine accompanied by regulars attempts at voyeurism. In his increasingly excited young mind, sexuality is a slew of cave shadows replete with sound effects and fluids.

The rest of Ernest’s routine includes neglecting homework and hanging out with fully pubescent gal pal Christine (Samantha Futerman), who isn’t perceptive enough to realize that she’s leading him on. Stuck in a droll routine managing the motel’s desk and cleaning up the mess in post-coitus rooms, Ernest is like a young Travis Bickle, although not as defiantly unsocial. His fixation on developing as a writer is repressed by his managerial mother, who autocratically insists that her son channels all his energies into an administrative routine.

The tired Freudian twist is that she seems to project her own unfulfilled desire for a coherent family unit onto the success of their operation, which also includes Ernest’s tight-lipped grandfather and ebullient little sister. All of these characters are unsurprisingly transparent, since such heavy consequence is allotted to our youthful protagonist (the film’s first shot is his POV of a half-eaten egg roll). He neglects the tenuous household structure, forgoing family time to absorb the homophobic teasing from a neighborhood bully (Conor J. White).

These doleful salad days are cranked up a notch on the maturity scale with the arrival of a suave Korean-American guest named Sam (Sung Kang). When Sam isn’t busy screwing, he playfully bonds with Ernest over shared societal opposition. Although their relationship is eventually one-dimensional, it serves to highlight Ernest’s increasing awareness of how grown-up conflicts only differ from his own in the specifics, and for that purpose, their earlier scenes together have enough charm to sustain the narrative. When Sam’s sappy background story about a failed romance starts to murkily evolve, the plot thickens with a lot of hot air.

In a conclusive scene featuring subtle, gritty defiance against mindless rebellion, Ernest comes full circle to embrace the value system he had initially met with resistance. Once the arc is complete, it’s impossible to overlook the screen precedents—Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, for one, and Todd Solondz’s exploration of the interplay between sexual deviance and youth in both Palindromes and the unforgettably dour Welcome to the Dollhouse. While Kang’s film lacks the good-natured exploratory qualities of Truffaut’s storytelling, and isn’t mean-spirited like Solondz, it somehow feels like an oddball laboratory experiment to combine opposing formulas. Which it might be—Kang conceived of the script, at least partially, in a Sundance workshop. This being his directorial debut, it’s easy to see where ambition fails him. The compositions, usually unfolding in Jarmuschian long takes and viewed through wide angles, tend to look flat, and extended dialogue scenes grow tired. But like Ernest himself, there’s little doubt that Kang’s style will grow.

*A version of this review was published this week in the New York Press.


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