Asian-American director Sean Wang is making a quiet storm in Hollywood. This week, his short film Nai Nai & Wài Pó is among this year’s Academy Awards for Best Short Live-Action Film but his debut feature film was among the features to debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Set in 2008, Dìdi (Mandarin for little brother) focuses on Taiwanese-American teenager Chris (or Wang-Wang to his friends), who lives with his mother Chungsing (Joan Chen), grandmother and older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen), who is about to leave home for university. Over the course of the film, Chris navigates his friends, family and first crush in the summer before attending high school amid the early days of the digital age.
The film’s starts off with a viral video and the look of unrestrained craziness and euphoria from Chris’s face. In its first few minutes, Dìdi sets itself as a screwball comedy that centres on a kid who is a typical teenage boy: messes around with his friends, shares a love/hate relationship with his older sister, and is a spoiled brat. But Didi isn’t your typical teen movie.
But like any other normal teenager, he is quick to talk back to his family and friends but cannot seem to honestly express himself. He chooses to be bold and occasionally offensive to hide insecurities that mostly stemming from his Asian identity, especially as he feels like he is an embarrassment to his mother and hates that his father is working in Taiwan and not at home. This lingering resentment towards his family and, by extension, his heritage, causes him to hide it to prevent embarrassment with others, highlighting a relatable feeling among children of Asian immigrants who would prefer to assimilate with Western culture rather than be proud of who they are.
The only way Chris seems to express himself properly is online – but as it is set in 2008, we are seeing the dawn of social media. Myspace was still considered popular, YouTube had yet to be populated with influencers and not everyone was on Facebook. Through interactions on AOL Messenger and social media, Chris finds himself eager for a connection but unable to maintain it – even a promising romance with his crush, film-loving Madi (Mahaela Park), falls before it has a chance to blossom due to his shyness. As the film goes on, Wang uses Chris’s increasing use of social media to highlight its mental impact among teens, with the all-familiar angst of whether people are still friends or are just not talking to them. With this anxiety about his popularity, it is no wonder that Chris tries too hard impress others, ultimately alienating himself from his social circle to heartbreaking effect.
Wang’s direction and screenplay not only nicely fits in with the times but complements Chris’s worlds, whether it be his family’s dim yet homely house or sun-kissed summer in California to respectively capture the world he wants to escape and the one where he wants to fit in. Wang also ensures that his protagonist’s Asian heritage is consistent albeit a noticeable thorn in his side through chats between Tiger Mums comparing their children and even his own grandmother criticising Chungsing at every opportunity. This awkwardness serves to build an inner friction with his own identity that unfortunately lingers without resolution – even a fraught argument between Chris and Chungsing cannot bring things to a head, leaving the film feeling lost in places.
In a star-making role, Izaac Wang brilliantly conveys Chris’s frustration of being a teenager, as his expressive performance allows audiences to see Chris’s child-like naivety with a slight sadness towards a messed-up world. Meanwhile, Joan Chen is wonderful as Chris’s supportive mother while Shirley Chen shares sibling-like chemistry with Wang but a quiet star is Sean Wang’s actual grandmother Chang Li Hua, who plays Chris’s grandmother as she embodies an overly familiar level of maternal affection (and criticism) for Asian audiences.
Overall, Sean Wang balances a multitude of elements to create a raw coming-of-age story for a new generation. Poignant, sensitive and incredibly relatable, Dìdi has an abundance of heart and a winning lead actor in the young Izaac Wang.
Director: Sean Wang
Stars: Izaac Wang, Joan Chen, Shirley Chen, Mahaela Park
Runtime: 91 minutes