Let’s get the important details out of the way first: yes, Keanu “America’s Sweetheart” Reeves makes a GIFable appearance Always Be My Maybe, the new comedy streaming on Netflix; yes, he’s great in it; and, good news, he’s got a bigger role in the romcom than you might think. That isn’t to say he overstays his welcome (Keanu Reeves, stay as long as you want) — like any good guest, the John Wick star drops in when needed and then gets out of the way, ceding the floor to stars Randall Park and Ali Wong.
Written by Park, Wong, and Michael Golamco, and directed by Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, Always Be My Maybe is of a class with Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in that it’s charming and, for the most part, middle of the road. The story of childhood sweethearts given the chance to reconnect after drifting apart hits every beat it needs to; the few instances in which it goes above and beyond are just the cherry on the cake.
Ever since awkwardly losing their virginities to each other in the back of an old Toyota Corolla, Sasha (Wong) and Marcus (Park) have grown apart. Sasha has gone on to become a celebrity chef, while Marcus hasn’t really gone anywhere, remaining in their hometown of San Francisco and helping his father (James Saito) install and repair air conditioners — when he isn’t getting stoned. Their paths cross again when Sasha returns to open a new restaurant in the city, and, naturally, both soon start to wonder, “What if?”
Since the release of Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, the question that’s loomed over the media landscape has been just how the film industry will proceed when it comes to tackling issues of representation. In a recent interview with NPR, chef and food writer Samin Nosrat cited a particular joke with regards to that exact struggle: “True diversity is not when there’s the excellent black person, the excellent Iranian chef or whatever. It’s when there’s as much black and brown and queer mediocrity as there is white mediocrity.”
Again, it’s something Nosrat said mostly in jest, but there’s a grain of truth there. Always Be My Maybe is an absolutely fine film, but works wonders on the level that it’s populated by Asian characters (with Asian creators behind the scenes) whose Asian-ness is no longer their sole defining feature. Wong and Park — whose stand-up specials and film/TV work, respectively, prove their mettle as comedians — are endlessly funny, and aren’t relegated to being the token Asian in the cast. Heritage isn’t hidden or otherwise elided, but there’s no impetus to describe Always Be My Maybe as “the Asian romcom;” it’s just a romcom that happens to have people of Asian descent in it.
Always Be My Maybe’s laid back approach is abundantly clear when, early on, a slideshow of pictures introduces Wong and Park’s characters, à la the titles of Arrested Development. The style feels suited for TV, or the intentional ’90s kitsch of Fresh Off the Boat. At the risk of sounding mean, it almost feels cheap — which is where the details that set the film apart kick in.
Every aspect of Always Be My Maybe that stews in the realm of mediocrity is given a little boost by points of cultural specificity. For instance, one of the causes of tension between Marcus and Sasha is his disdain for the haute cuisine-style food she makes, citing it as a way of making Asian food trendy for white people instead of actually making good, “real” Asian food. The two leads’ relationships with their parents also not only extend beyond stereotypes of tiger moms and the model minority myth, but dig — on a shallow level — into the nuances of how expectations of what is owed and expected can change between first- and second-generation parents and children.
As small a detail as it may seem, it’s still extremely novel to see a mainstream (for the Netflix value of the word) film acknowledge that Asian-American culture isn’t as monolithic as it always seems to be portrayed. It’s the kind of thing that sets Always Be My Maybe past its otherwise formulaic plotting, with a little additional help from the all-around terrific cast.
Ultimately, Reeves’ cameo serves as something of a neat analog to the film itself. In an interview, Wong and Khan stated that they wanted to “reclaim” Reeves, who is of Chinese-Hawaiian heritage, as Asian-American. None of that is really made text in the film, and his cameo is ultimately slight, but the film is still one of the better romcoms made in recent years, and smarter when it comes to its characters, too.