There's a strong tradition in recent American entertainment that almost celebrates the horrors of growing up. From the novels of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, to My So-Called Life and Malcolm in the Middle, to Pretty in Pink and Welcome to the Dollhouse, American culture indulges in a sort of gleeful dissection of every childhood trauma, from the smallest slight to the largest, most devastating blow. Much of the time, perhaps illogically, these microscopic looks are executed in the service of comedy, likely with the understanding that, if we didn't laugh at our remembered struggles, we might be reduced to tears on an embarrassingly regular basis. Sometimes, though, as in both Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Motel, writer-director Michael Kang's debut feature which opens today in New York, the uneasy laughter does nothing to lessen the pain. Instead, it serves only to highlight the horrible injustice we're witnessing, and render the stories told in those films even more wrenching for audiences.
Kang's film tells the story of Ernest, a chubby, bespectacled 13-year-old who lives and works in a small, roadside motel run by his mother. Wonderfully played by Jeffrey Chyau, Ernest is almost painfully laconic, speaking rarely and moving quickly only when he tries to escape the bullying of Roy (Conor J. White), a bored kid who's lived in the motel with his sister and deadbeat dad for weeks. Apart from the furtive masturbation session prompted by a girly magazine, the world has little impact on Ernest; even when he's upset by something, it's hard to tell. Trapped in a frustratingly unresponsive body, Ernest doesn't even think quickly. He's not stupid, he just takes his time in making decisions, and is unashamed of carefully examining things that interest him, even if that examination involves staring at motel guests. Despite his depressing lethargy, however, there's something appealing about Ernest, and his quiet strength. It's not that he fights back -- he does so once, in a scene of almost explosive (albeit short-lived) joy -- but rather that he just keeps going. No matter how many times his mother tells him his writing is stupid, or his sister gets him in trouble, or he screws things up with the girl he loves, he simply refuses to quit. His life is terrible and he knows it, but despite the apparent lack of any way out, Ernest puts his head down and goes on; in a movie like this, that resigned determination amounts to heroism.
The Motel takes place during a brief interval in Ernest's life when, just for a few days, it seems as if something good might actually happen to him. Those days are dominated by Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a painfully cliched character whose drunken arrival at the motel with a prostitute is memorable to Ernest not because of the girl, but because Kim's credit card is rejected. Intrigued by the man and his absurdly transparent high-spirits, but primarily in need of payment for the room, Ernest watches him. Finally approaching Kim in search of a new credit card (if the room is not paid for, Ernest's overworked, non-nonsense mother will blame him, and then kick Kim out), Ernest ends up in an awkward sort of friendship with a man who clearly needs him at least as much as Ernest needs the father figure Kim thinks he can be.
That Kim is trying to escape his real life is obvious from the moment he appears on screen, and almost each of his lines could be recited by the audience before they leave his mouth. He's the good-looking, bad-news, good-hearted character that shows up in half of all movies; the only difference here is that this one is Korean. Played effectively but unmemorably by Kang, Kim serves as the film's engine of near-change. He adopts Ernest as a son-cum-best friend, and both plays catch with him (though Ernest is a terrible athlete with no interest whatsoever in improving his skills) and confidently gives him a foolproof plan to have sex with Christine (Samantha Futerman, whose performance is so wise and confident that we immediately understand Ernest's helpless infatuation), the older woman (she's 15) he loves. In addition, Kim involves Ernest in his own disastrous life, roping him into a clandestine visit to his ex-wife's house, and sharing his misery with the boy.
The results of Kim's advice, not surprisingly, are disastrous for Ernest. What's most disturbing, though, is not those results, but rather the fact that, on some level, Ernest knew they were coming. Smart enough to realize very quickly that Kim is pathetic, Ernest nevertheless goes along with his plans, at least in part because they represent something different in his life. Good or bad, at least something is finally happening. And, for a brief time, Ernest is different. Not because of Kim's advice, but simply because someone is finally paying attention to him, and treating him like someone else: Not sad-sack Ernest, but someone who can be a best friend; who can have girlfriend; who can have sex; who can survive a fight. Someone normal.
Though the press notes are full of references to the film's abundant humor, The Motel is in fact an inescapably depressing film. As with Welcome to the Dollhouse, which also featured painful, not-really-funny laughs, the truth is that the main character's situation is unjustly awful, and that it's not going to change any time soon. To see such a likable, apparently unbreakable figure as Ernest at the center of such a mess is devastating, and a strong indication of the power of Chyau's performance. Based on his statements about the film, however, it's hard to know if director Kang deserves to share that praise. Based essentially on one extraordinary performance, his film is often very powerful, but it's a power that comes sometimes in spite of Kang's attempts to playing up the elusive comedy to which he is so oddly attached. Whatever his intentions, however, his film remains an effective, biting look at a typically dreadful childhood that leaves us both depressed and thankful that we survived those years intact.