A Student's Guide
Charming doesn't necessarily translate to noteworthy as this film about an awkward 13-year old boy coming of age with the help of a weird hotshot swindler amply illustrates.
In a sleazy 2nd rate motel on the outskirts of a suburban backwater Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau), a rather roly-poly junk-food-junkie overweight kid, works for his mother as chambermaid and part-time clerk while also doing his homework and winning honorable mention in a writing contest. His mother's (Jade Wu) insistence that honorable mention isn't winning and her baseball bat style of collecting rent from scamming tenants suggests a tough character and insensitive variety of motherly love.
A ray of support comes in the form of pretty 16-year old waitress Christine (Samantha Futerman) but she makes it clear that her desire is to be friendly with Ernest and nothing more. Which is too bad because she's the most promising cast member of the lot and the film needs the attraction she provides.
On the other hand, the major plot element is also the most bewildering. It starts when Sam (Sung Kang) blows in with his hot wheels and hotter babe. Acting like a high roller, he stiffs Ernest with a bad credit card then proceeds to act like Ernests' best friend, confidant and mentor. Impressionable Ernest goes along with Sam's continual attempts to entertain and guide him.
Sam teaches Ernest to drive, bolsters his ego, brings him food in the middle of the night, and tries to get Ernest to kill time playing baseball only to prove his assumed protege's lack of coordination or interest. Sam's character may have been constructed to provide a reason for Ernest to assert individuality, but his motivation is strange and unexplainable.
Unfortunately, the central figure's dithering aimlessness isn't much foundation for appeal or more than casual interest. In terms of writing and casting, it's a presence that only a festival audience would love, although there's obviously a strong ethnic following for its commercial potential. The injection of more interesting side issues, like the bully who insists on Ernest kissing his sister or suffering a beating lifts the dramatic level fleetingly, but remain peripheral.
Dramatically unfocused, as low key as its protagonist, a story about a relatively unexplored ethnic group affords "The Motel" special interest. The third effort of Korean American writer-director Michael Kang of New York ("Japanese Cowboy," 2000, "A Waiter Tomorrow," 1998) brings attention to his unique demographic, but it should have been a better made movie.