Movie review: Always Be My Maybe

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

There is a sacred contract between filmmaker and audience member for anyone who goes to see a romantic comedy – they will take you away on a magically romantic carpet ride to a place where “meet cutes” trounce Tinder and obstacles are overcome with a quick trip to the airport or a heartfelt speech (or preferably, both) while we in turn will suspend all disbelief and embrace the idea that love can completely sweep all the messy, grungy detritus of life … JUST … LIKE … THAT.

Done right, it’s a partnership made in heaven, and it’s safe to say that the Ali Wong, Randall Park and Michael Golamco-penned Always Be My Maybe – cue the Carly Rae Jepsen earworm which will burrow in and not leave you for days, trust me – more than holds up its end of this time-honoured bargain.

In fact, so successfully does the film, which centres on two young San Francisco kids, Marcus Kim (Randall Park) and Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) who are each other’s worlds throughout childhood and well into their teenage years, do its transportive job that it’s well nigh impossible, and frankly where is the fun in resisting, not to be swept up in the great love story that unfolds.

What makes this Cupid-pleasing confection such a crowd-pleasing delight is how grounded and real it all feels, despite all the usual hyper-real rom-com accoutrements such as the impossibly big homes, immensely-successful careers (well Sasha’s anyway) and kind of coincidences that rarely meet up meaningfully in real life but which are the life and breath of all good romantic tales like this.

Much of this is due to the fact that the film takes its time setting the scene, making the all important effort to demonstrate in a series of scenes longer than the usual expositional montage favoured by most films, why Marcus and Sasha mean so much to each other.

If this had been rushed, much of the rest of the film would have felt half-baked, lacking the kind of emotional resonance that comes from understanding that here are two people who don’t just like each other, they love each other and each has been the other’s salvation in various ways right throughout their formative years.

We see, for instance, how Sasha sees Marcus’s parents Harry and Judy (James Saito and Susan Park) as her surrogate parents, the people who take her in and feed her each night as her hard-working parents leave her alone day after day, night after night.

Their inclusion of Sasha in their family means the world to the lonely young girl, who is taken under Judy’s wings and taught how to cook the most authentic Korean meals, something that proves pivotal in all kinds of ways later on in life.

Marcus, shy and reluctant to put himself out there too much, is clearly in love with Sasha and Sasha with him, but neither really does anything about it until the aftermath of a tragic event sees the two act on their love and lust for each other and do the deed.

Should they have done that? No, no, they should not have, and in the ensuing awkwardness, harsh words are exchanged, chasms are created until, fast forward sixteen years, super-successful celebrity chef Sasha is back in San Francisco to open her new restaurant Saintly Fare and the two, as rom-com narratives demand, meet through more than a little meddling by old friend, and Sasha’s employee Veronica (Michelle Buteau).

The meeting is as torturously comical as you might expect, made all the funnier by Park’s gift for random, misplaced utterances that neatly capture how profoundly difficult those kind of long-held-off encounters are, especially when so much time has passed between the gaffe and the here and now with nary a word, let alone an apology, exchanged.

Helping too is the near-perfect chemistry between Wong and Park who feel at every stage of the film like two people who really truly, deeply, forever love each other and have done so since they were children.

That kind of rapport is critical because so much of Always Be My Maybe depends on us believing (remember the sacred pact?) that these two people separated by life choices good and bad – for all Sasha’s success, Marcus has essentially freeze-framed his life, still living at home, working for his dad’s air-con business and playing in his 16-year-old band Hello Peril – are still completely and irrevocably into each other.

Their naturalness with each other helps everything else make sense, breathing life into the use of certain tropes – yes, there is a falling out, yes, there are other partners lurking in the wings, swiftly dispatched and yes, there are hurdles galore to overcome though there’s also love, much love, to finally consummate – and making what is at heart a delightfully fanciful story feel groundedly and affectingly real.

So real, in fact, that when the two lovebirds finally get back together – hardly a spoiler; this is a rom-com after all, one that knows that, no matter how creative you get with the formula, and Always Be My Maybe is a breath of fresh air in that regard, you don’t substantially alter it – it feels like something deeply-wonderful has taken place.

Too many rom-coms spend all their time rushing to the finish line, forgetting that while a happy ending is where we want to end up, it’s the journey to that point that makes it all worthwhile.

By taking us so deeply into their shared childhood experiences, and the reasons why the bonds between them are so enduringly intense and special, the Nahnatchka Khan-directed Always Be My Maybe gifts itself a kind of rom-com immortality, the kind that comes from treating the lead-up as just as vital an ingredient as the happy ever after.

By the time Sasha and Marcus get their adult proverbial together, you understand what’s at stake; this is not simply some meet cute made good, an air-fairy notion of love as it might be because gosh darn the other person is so cute and lovely – it’s the culmination of a lifelong love and yearning and it matters.

It’s also funny, very funny, helped by Park’s self-deprecation and his talent for the kind of witty oneliners that sound wholly natural but are, of course anything but, and by a brilliantly-skewering cameo by Sasha’s new boyfriend Keanu Reeves, playing a heightened version of himself, who is all kinds of venison-chomping, Uber pool-calling pretentious and the reason why most of us stop dating in the first place.

He’s hysterical, and the scene where he, Sasha, Marcus and Marcus’s daffy but well-meaning but also superficial girlfriend Jenny (Vivian Bang) have a double date at an upmarket, minimalist food restaurant called Maximal (it is everything that Marcus hates and Sasha, in the biz, tolerates) is worth the price of admission alone, if only for the incredibly wanky meal options on offer.

Always Be My Maybe is that rare piece of rom-com perfection – one that is impossibly, transportively-romantic, lifting us up from the banal and everyday and making the life-transforming romantic seem completely within reach, but which also feels endearingly-grounded, the affecting love story it tells (and you will have all the feels in the final act) borne out of real lived life experiences that make you root for the characters and which feels like you have won Cupid’s lottery when events take their ordained but wholly fresh, original, and swoon-worthy course.

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