First-time filmmaker Michael Kang's marvelously assured feature debut is a subtle adaptation of Ed Lin's acclaimed novel Waylaid. Chubby, 13-year-old Chinese-American Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau) lives in his immigrant mother's slightly seedy rural motel with kid sister Katie (Alexis Chang) and their elderly grandfather, Gung Gung (Stephen Chen). Ahma (Jade Wu), Ernest's mom, rents out rooms by the week, the day or — as is often the case — the hour, and as far as Ernest is concerned, he's in hell. Each day after school, he cleans up after the transients who temporarily call the motel home and the local prostitutes who tryst with their johns in the grimy rooms. The one bright spot in his life is 15-year-old Christine (Samantha Futerman), a school friend who works at her family's Chinese restaurant and teaches Ernest how to hide the smell of illicit cigarettes with a swig of creme de menthe. Christine encourages Ernest to enter his short story "The Motel," about life with his mother, into a writing contest; when he gets an honorable mention, Christine insists he attend the awards ceremony. Ahma, on the other hand, is a brutally practical woman who enforces checkout times with a baseball bat and has nothing to say about the whereabouts of Ernest's father; to Ahma, being a runner-up only means you weren't good enough to win. Ernest is rocked out of his misery by the sudden appearance of Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a good-looking, sharp-dressed Korean-American customer who pulls up in a silver BMW and bursts into the office with a hooker on his arm and booze on his breath. Sam's credit card is declined and he doesn't have the cash to pay for his room, but in Ernest's eyes he's the coolest thing that's ever happened to the motel, and the boy manages to fool Ahma into thinking the guy in Room 15 is paying his bill. Out of loneliness and boredom, Sam teaches Ernest how to throw a baseball and drive a car — things Ernest's absent father might have taught him — but when he starts giving advice about Christine, Ernest's idealized image of his new hero comes crashing down. While ostensibly about a Chinese-American family literally living on the margins of the American dream, Kang's film avoids broad generalizations about the Asian-American experience to focus on the horrors of adolescence, when differences in race and ethnicity can only add to the general torment. Race, however, is never far from the surface: It's clear that Ernest's attraction to Sam is largely due to the extent to which he seems to defy stereotypes, and it's a heartbreaking moment when it becomes clear that the white skater boy Christine likes knows her only as the girl from the Chinese restaurant.
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