So-called “indie” cinema is supposed to break away from the tired formulas of Hollywood filmmaking. Yet indie films themselves have lapsed into their own formulas, generating just as many clichés as the Hollywood blockbusters at which they so haughtily sneer. Unfortunately, Michael Kang’s The Motel embraces far too many of them.
A certain style has developed in the past few years, one that was used to great effect recently in Little Miss Sunshine but that is probably best exemplified by the films of Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, etc.): quiet, understated acting, dry humor, and a certain brand of self-conscious quirkiness, a facet underscored by the prominent use of off-beat pop songs in the soundtrack.
The Motel has all these hallmarks and revels in this low-budget, less-is-more aesthetic. The film was produced by the same folks who brought us solid independent features like Chuck and Buck and Me, You and Everyone We Know, films which contain many of the same characteristics as The Motel but manage to pull it off, due to the sure hands of their directors. The Motel is instead an imitation, one that hints at the ability to examine interesting and rich themes but unfortunately does not.
We’ve seen countless coming-of-age, puberty-sucks stories, but this one sheds little light on the topic, instead merely setting the tale in a new location. The film is at its best when it delves into its very Asianness, a mantle it does not want but should reconsider, for the problems of a chubby, pubescent Chinese kid living in an hourly-rate motel on the fringes of small-town America could have and should have been a deep well to draw from. But unfortunately Kang is content to simply imitate the stylistic concerns of other directors, eschewing the stronger elements of his story in favor of lighter, more predictable fare in an effort to replicate the formula that has become indie cinema’s surest path to a sleeper hit.
Directed by Michael Kang. Starring Jeffrey Chyau, Samantha Futerman, Sung Kang. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.
Kang will be on hand to take questions after the 5:20 showing on Saturday,
Oct. 21. 76 minutes. Not rated.