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"The Motel" 

A charming coming of age story set in a no-tell motel

Life's not fair


Maybe you're surveying your complicated life right now and longing for a simpler age of less responsibility, more fun, and quality time with the Count and the Captain (that would be Messrs. Chocula and Crunch). Unfortunately, this isn't possible, as any time-travel technology enabling a do-over is at least three years away. And before you get all weepy over your lost youth, remember the sucky parts too, like early bedtimes, unrequited crushes, bossy adults --- OK; apparently some things never change.

My point is that adolescence seems awesome only after we've forgotten about most of it, but in Michael Kang's sweet feature-film debut The Motel, the pains of growing are on full, squirm-inducing display. It's the story of a spell in the life of Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), a chubby 13-year-old Chinese-American who lives and works at his mother Ahma's (Jade Wu) motel --- not a resort, mind you, but more of a last resort, with the motel's inhabitants either down on their luck or renting by the hour. Ahma is an Asian immigrant, a no-nonsense woman given to eternally maternal sayings like "Life's not fair" and "Because I'm your mother." There's no dad, just a grandpa and a little sister, and Ernest's dull existence is topsy-turvied when Sam rolls in.

He's got a hooker on one arm and a bottle of hooch under the other, but the handsome and charming Sam (Sung Kang, Better Luck Tomorrow) becomes somewhat of a big brother to Ernest, who, in turn, helps distract the obviously sad Sam from his recently unraveled life. Sam gives Ernest sage advice on how to bag the cute girl at the Chinese restaurant ("high-quality amateur porn") and teaches him how to drive, thus allowing Ernest to steal his mom's station wagon and make a clumsily inappropriate move on the object of his affection. Ernest is already in the doghouse with his hard-ass mom, neglecting to tell her about a writing contest in which he received honorable mention ("You're not even good enough to lose!").

Though much film stock is devoted to the alternately funny and contentious bonding between Sam and Ernest, it's Ernest's relationship with the seemingly cold Ahma that lies at the heart of The Motel. The single mother is trying to run a business while raising a family, her blunt old-world approach perfect for the motel but less than conducive to cultivating her sensitive American children. Director Michael Kang has a flair for natural-sounding dialogue, which causes one to wonder about the possibly personal nature of his film. And he stops to address racism, both the cruel taunting of Ernest by his white bully and the affectionate banter between the Korean Sam and the Chinese Ernest.
Chyau delivers an effortless though astonishingly gutsy performance as Ernest, an awkward --- and not always likeable --- kid receiving instruction from all sides but trying to figure it out for himself. He's matched by the charismatic Sung Kang, who uses only the barebones details of Sam's past to help us understand why he may be the way he is. And as Ahma, Wu allows the dialogue-free final shot to convey what we had suspected all along but she was far too proud to announce. Clocking in at under 80 minutes, The Motel could have easily been a bit fatter, but sometimes less is just enough.

The Motel (R), written and directed by Michael Kang, opens Friday, October 27, at the Little Theatres.

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