By Andrea Thompson
I was less than impressed by “Set It Up,” the last Netflix rom-com I watched, so it was a relief that “Always Be My Maybe” is about as progressive as it thinks it is. The movie addresses race, a major blind spot in not only “Set It Up,” but of quite a few rom-coms in general, which tend to heavily rely on the trope of the black best friend. But “Always Be My Maybe” just doesn't have a cast that's mostly Asian, it's culturally specific in how it references the differences between the cultures.
Sasha (Ali Wong, who co-wrote) and Marcus (Randall Park) are definitely a couple worth rooting for. They meet as kids in San Francisco, where they're inseparable from childhood to their teen years, which at one point involves matching Wayne’s World Halloween costumes. Awww. Sasha's parents are always away at the store where they work, so she also finds a kind of surrogate family with Marcus's parents, especially his mother Judy (Susan Park), where she learns a love of cooking that will be the bedrock of her hugely successful career.
Sasha and Marcus fall out as teen, shortly after Judy dies. Shortly after, Marcus and Sasha have sex for the first time. The aftermath is a mutual awkwardness that can occur even under the best of circumstances, and feels way, way, too relatable. Much like teen years in general, people tend to forget how the first time can lead to even more weirdness rather than ending it. It ends up inadvertently ending the friendship between Marcus and Sasha.
Given the whole situation, which includes the recent death of his mother, it's understandable that Marcus would lash out at Sasha. And it's just as understandable why his anger would be so devastating to Sasha. They were both already on the precipice of major changes, and this comes just to in time to lead to an estrangement that lasts 15 years. By the present, they're both in very different places. Sasha is a hugely successful celebrity chef, while Marcus is still living and working with his father at their air conditioning company. He's also in a band called Hello Peril (a play on the term yellow peril, a period where Asians were seen as a threat) that has found some local success, but is reluctant to play outside his neighborhood.
When Sasha returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant, she and Marcus reconnect. It's of course a bit awkward at first, but they quickly fall into old familiar friendship patterns, with the two of them even going to their favorite childhood restaurant after Sasha breaks up with her handsome and successful, yet detached, commitment-phobic fiance Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim). Marcus also has a girlfriend (Vivian Bang) albeit one he's only been dating for five months who's clearly wrong for him.
We all know where this is going, and it's refreshing that Marcus is pretty quick to realize that he is and always has been in love with Sasha. Less of the arbitrary rigamarole! Yay! This is still a rom-com though, and there's plenty of movie left, so we know it's not gonna be that easy. And sure enough, Sasha just happens to meet someone. And it involves one of the most hilarious celebrity cameos ever. Because the guy Sasha has been dating turns out to be...Keanu Reeves, who plays a demented version of himself.
Astoundingly, “Always Be My Maybe” also knows when to stop. Keanu Reeves is fantastic, and game as hell, but it would also get grating if this were pushed too far. We'd respect Sasha less for sticking with a jerk, and even Keanu's act would probably get old. Instead of having this be the conflict for the rest of the film, it only takes a little time spent at Keanu's apartment for Sasha realizes Keanu is that much of a jerk and for Marcus to break up with his girlfriend. After they call out each other's bullshit, they fall into bed together and just...start dating.
Yet...there's still plenty of movie left. So what gets in the way? Marcus, really, and the difference in status between him and Sasha. While Sasha has her issues, she is savvy and aware enough to know what she wants and to go for it. Marcus, on the other hand, is stuck, unsure if he even wants his band to play in a bigger venue across town. So he does freak out when Sasha asks him to go to New York with her. Their inevitable argument and break up sucks, but it's clear that Marcus and his issues that are at fault, while allowing him to remain sympathetic. The really inspiring thing is how much Sasha stands up to him and lays it out. She is unapologetic about how her career, and about asking Marcus to support her. As she points out, “No one would question it if the situation were the other way around.”
When their disagreements causes them to part ways, it's also because Sasha lays it out and says she loves Marcus for the first time, that she always has. And that she wants to be with him, even when she recognizes he's being an asshole. But she refuses to keep him in her life if he can't accept the way she lives it. It's one of the best rom-com moments ever, where a declaration of love comes from a driven career woman who is allowed to be vulnerable, smart, and decisive.
We may all know how this is going to end up too, but the big romantic gesture where Marcus wins Sasha back feels earned in a way such moments rarely do. Hell, “Always Be My Maybe” manages to squeeze in quite a bit, especially for a rom-com. There's even a subplot involving Sasha's parents, who are trying to reconnect after being absent for much of her childhood, and are even present at the big romantic moment. Hilariously, their big gesture that wins Sasha over is paying full price at her restaurant.
Randall Park, who plays Marcus, actually helped write many of the songs his band plays, having been a part of a hip hop group early in his career. It's part of why the songs feel so fun, and why we feel just as invested in Marcus and his career as we do Sasha's. It also indicative how so many people from an array of Asian cultures were involved in making this film, from director Nahnatchka Khan to all THREE writers: Michael Golamco, Randall Park, and Ali Wong. Perhaps this will continue to be a trend among mainstream movies, as even Disney is beginning to hire creatives of color behind the scenes as well as in front. What can possibly capture the feeling of people besides straight white men FINALLY being allowed to tell their stories? Possibly only this gif, so I’ll leave it at that.