When news broke in 2017 that Ali Wong and Randall Park were teaming up to film a romantic comedy, the general tenor of the chatter around this development was breathless and hyperbolic—fans of both actors screaming from the rafters about how desperately we needed a rom-com with Asian American actors that finally put Asians in the spotlight as the romantic leads. Always Be My Maybe is the end result of that fervor, arriving two years later, after the commercial and critical success of a variety of stories showcasing the Asian American experience. As the newest entry to the rom-com genre, it succeeds not solely because of its representation: Always Be My Maybe is a sparkling, charming rom-com that celebrates the hyper-specific Asian experience of growing up in the late ’90s in the Bay Area: a love letter to Clement Street dim sum and a gentle reminder that the best kind of love is sometimes found in the things we leave behind.
Marcus (Randall Park) and Sasha (Ali Wong) have been friends since childhood, growing up on the same block in the Sunset district in San Francisco. Sasha’s parents were largely absent, busying themselves with running a store and leaving their one child to fend for themselves. As a result, Sasha embedded herself with Marcus’s family, picking up a lifelong love of food taught to her by Judy, Marcus’s mother. When Judy dies in their teens (and early on in the film), Sasha’s attempt at comforting Marcus results in sweet, awkward sexual congress in the backseat of his Toyota Corolla, while D’Angelo plays in the background: lust as a suitable stand-in for grief. Flash forward 15 years later, and Sasha is a successful chef engaged to her brand manager, Brandon (an irrepressibly smarmy Daniel Dae Kim) and Marcus still lives at home, with his dad, installing HVAC in the homes of wealthy San Franciscans, smoking weed, and playing keyboard in a band called Hello Peril.
When Sasha returns to open a restaurant in her hometown, she and Marcus naturally re-connect, though there are a few stumbling blocks to their inevitable reunion. Marcus’s girlfriend, Jenny (Vivian Bang, a treasure), is Asian, has dreadlocks, and tells Sasha over dinner of spaghetti and Vienna sausage that she and Marcus are “spiritually married.” Sasha, freshly-dumped by Brandon, who put their engagement on pause to traipse about the globe, is dipping a cautious toe into the dating pool. Because this is a romantic comedy, our two intrepid leads find their way to each other again, but not without complication in the form of Keanu Reeves, playing a delicious send-up of himself. Reeves shines briefly as Sasha’s new beau, who is exactly the kind of new-age asshole you’d expect of Keanu Reeves.
Fixating on the fact that Always Be My Maybe is a romantic comedy featuring two Asian American leads does a disservice to the film itself, which is an excellent romantic comedy, period. Stating how truly remarkable it is that this sort of thing has never existed in the culture is valid, but it would be a shame if that conversation subsumed the other, more vital discussion about the slow but steady return of the romantic comedy, regardless of its actors’ race.
With that in mind, Always Be My Baby isn’t reinventing the wheel. Its story toddles along mostly on the strength of Ali Wong, who plays Sasha with admirable restraint; those who have seen her comedy specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife on Netflix know that Wong’s strengths are when she is yelling about men. There are glimpses of that in this movie, which, when inserted into standard rom-com set pieces (Wong screaming obscenities on the phone to her erstwhile fiancé in front of an open window at a children’s birthday party), make me wish that Wong was given a little more space to do that. But the constraints of romantic comedy as a genre don’t allow for that kind of performance, which is a shame for Wong, whose comedic energy is brightest when she is allowed to use the full power of her voice.
Most important is that her character, Sasha, is allowed to fully inhabit her ambitions and her perfectionist tendencies without bending to tired rom-com tropes that would otherwise try to tame her. Marcus is a remix of the loutish underachiever as typified by Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch, but his lack of ambition isn’t necessarily a bad thing: he’s a good kid, dedicated to his family, and is just in need of a push to move past his comfort zone and forward into adulthood. Russell Park is solid, handsome, capable, and utterly charming—a leading man whose talents as sly foil to a larger, more outsized personality evinced by his performance Fresh Off the Boat are given their full due here.
What resonated for me the most is the familiarity—feeling seen—by the characters on screen, not just because they’re Asian, but because of the Bay Area-ness of it all. Ali Wong grew up in San Francisco and, according to various friends of mine from San Francisco, she’s hung out with them one to three times. While I can’t confirm this, the anecdote is now myth in my mind, and it is representative of the way San Francisco feels like a small town trapped inside the borders of a giant city being consumed by forces greater than itself. Marcus’s love for his family and for his city—foggy when it should be warm, but with very good food—makes him, for me, the fictional embodiment of a full quarter of my graduating class, most of whom have been content to stay in and around the Bay because they love it, but also because there’s really nothing else like it around.