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Saturday, February 24, 2024

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“DÌDI”

THE STORY – A 13-year-old Taiwanese American boy discovers skating, flirting, and the true essence of maternal love beyond his family’s teachings.

THE CAST – Izaac Wang, Shirley Chen, Chang Li Hua & Joan Chen

THE TEAM – Sean Wang (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 91 Minutes


The arc of the coming-of-age genre has been worn out by countless films exploring the universal themes of awkwardness, heartbreak, and longing during childhood and teenage years. It’s a familiar cinematic landscape, and it’s extremely rare to find one without the lead character achieving some sort of big personal success or experiencing the clear, defining moments of finally growing up. Those stories are indeed lovely, even if life is rarely as clean-cut as that. However, writer-director Sean Wang’s captivating and rapturous feature debut feature, “Dìdi,” finds a riskier take on the genre, steering clear of any easy resolutions or victories for its protagonist.

Wang, fresh off his Academy Award nomination for his short documentary “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó,” isn’t shy about how autobiographical “Dìdi” is. He clearly shares a lot in common with his main character, Chris Wang (played by Izaac Wang), or Wang Wang, as most of his friends call him. He’s an immature 13-year-old who fights endlessly with his sister (Shirley Chen) and spends most of his time filming stupid but harmless pranks with his friends. It’s the summer of 2008, the peak era of MySpace, A.I.M., and skate videos on YouTube. Chris has a few solid friends but finds himself out of step with them. While his friend Fahad (Raul Dial) has an easier time talking with girls, Chris jokingly calls one of them a “dumb bitch,” not realizing how poorly such a comment would come across. He’s constantly making the wrong moves, trying to fit in but failing miserably.

“Dìdi” is really about a kid searching for his identity. Is he Wang Wang, or is he Chris? Does he want to be a mindless kid pulling pranks on others, or does he want to start dating older girls and growing as a person? Chris’s lack of certainty about who he wants to be is palpable in every frame of feature Wang’s directorial debut. Wang’s nuanced screenplay strikes a balance between genuine hilarity and authentic teenage moments, relying more on Chris’s aimless journey of self-discovery than a strict plot. Chris just wants to feel normal. And it’s not just normalcy he’s searching for among friends. His relationship with his family is just as strained, featuring Joan Chen as Chris’s mother, a talented painter struggling to keep the family together while Chris’s dad works in Hong Kong.

While movies like Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” have depicted the internet age similarly, “Dìdi” is the first film to truly distinguish itself by capturing the pre-smartphone era. Wang masterfully navigates Chris’s attempts to connect through social media in their infant years, such as finding his crush’s favorite song on MySpace so he can orchestrate the right moment to play it around her or discovering he’s been removed from his buddy Fahad’s Top Friends on MySpace. He scours YouTube and Google to figure out skater lingo to fit in with a new group. Even if some of these sincere moments are funny, they’re never played for cheap nostalgic laughs, meant to mock how silly the days of the old internet were. Wang embraces their authenticity. These platforms and these experiences were genuine and a deeply felt part of people’s lives, and they’re just as integral to Chris’s journey as they are for the audience to reflect on a simpler time, even if internally, they felt anything but.

Wang’s astute writing allows Chris to be flawed and complex as he constantly makes the wrong choices plunging the audience further into uncomfortable levels of cringe comedy. He’s embarrassed by his mom, repeatedly hurts her feelings, and screams at his sister. Most films would give Chris a win here or there. Instead, “Dìdi” wisely sticks to the more realistic, relatable portrayal of the challenges faced during a coming-of-age journey. The result is a slightly darker yet more genuine depiction of this transitional phase. It’s sometimes painful to watch because you just want to shake the kid and say, “No! Make the right choice!” But each step of the way, Wang’s confidence in telling this story is always compelling.

Chris jumps between friend groups searching for identity, but his relationships with his sister and mom are often the most revealing. As much as he and his sister have visceral arguments, he is constantly stealing his sister’s sweatshirts because they’re cooler than his. His mom keeps checking in on him, trying her best to love and support him, even when he’s callous to her. Chen finds the perfect balance between softness and clarity in her performances, delivering a beautiful monologue toward the film’s end. While it could’ve been easy to make “Dìdi” all about Chris’s journey, his mother’s desires and unfulfilled dreams remind us that these problems don’t always just go away when we grow up. Izaac Wang is also highly impressive in a breakout performance that has to navigate through tricky material, but he pulls it off with ease and magnetism.

As adults, it’s easy to dismiss high school drama with a knowing smile and the assurance that things will get better. “Dìdi” serves as a poignant reminder that adolescence’s heartbreaks, embarrassments, and isolation are real and impactful in the moment, with the power to shape the rest of our lives in profound ways. Through its evocative storytelling, “Dìdi” gracefully captures the magnitude of these transformative moments, assuring audiences that, despite the challenges, everything will be okay in the end.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A brilliant, self-conscious feature directorial debut from Sean Wang. Cringe comedy mixed with a genuinely charming coming-of-age story. Impressive performances from Izaac Wang and Joan Chen. Avoids most tropes of the genre. Full of mid-2000s nostalgia.

THE BAD - Some may feel the aimlessness of the main character translates to aimlessness in the story. Facing the painful realities of 2008 cringe might also be too much for some to bear.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress & Best Original Screenplay

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Daniel Howat
Daniel Howathttps://nextbestpicture.com
Movie and awards season obsessed. Hollywood Critics Association Member.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A brilliant, self-conscious feature directorial debut from Sean Wang. Cringe comedy mixed with a genuinely charming coming-of-age story. Impressive performances from Izaac Wang and Joan Chen. Avoids most tropes of the genre. Full of mid-2000s nostalgia.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Some may feel the aimlessness of the main character translates to aimlessness in the story. Facing the painful realities of 2008 cringe might also be too much for some to bear.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actress/">Best Supporting Actress</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"DÌDI"