In my experience, pitching anything as “coming of age” story is instant death. Somehow, it reeks of overly familiar stuff that everybody is supposed to have moved past long ago. Bildungsroman has a slightly better ring to it, especially if you can hyphenate it somehow, but the idea is the same: teenagers learning about responsibility and identity and love and sex and death–ugh, right? Well, no. As Frederick Barthelme once told me, semi-cryptically: “It’s a rug.” Categorizing something doesn’t fully describe it yet, and it certainly doesn’t imply a value judgment. Most stories owe a huge debt to the major arcana and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, but that doesn’t make them bad rugs, dig?

What I’m trying to say is this: The Motel, written and directed by Michael Kang (not that Michael Kang) and based on the novel Waylaid by Ed Lin, is a thoroughly winning and funny coming-of-age story, and that shouldn’t scare you away. Thirteen-year-old Chinese-American Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) is growing up fast, helping his stern mother run a seedy hourly motel in what looks like somewhere, New Jersey. Hookers and tricks cum and go, leaving behind porno magazines and unpaid credit card bills. Ernest meets his only friend at the dumpster behind the Chinese restaurant, deals with racism, the local bully, and his obnoxious little sister, and enters writing contests in hopes of leaving the motel behind for good. Yes, the individual stages of Ernest’s story are familiar, but it’s their specificity that makes them fresh. It’s been a while that I’ve seen a movie that feels so much like what an independent film is supposed to be: unassuming, sharply written, poignant, and surprisingly unique.

The Motel. Michael Kang, 2005. ****

[tags]film, independent, michael kang, motel life, 4 stars, coming of age[/tags]