Anybody who’s suffered through the experience of being a 13-year-old probably knew a boy who acted like Chris Wang (Izaac Wang). A braces-faced edgelord fresh out of middle school, Chris spends the summer of 2008 before freshman year tossing around casually sexist and homophobic jokes with his friends, surfing the web on his bulky PC, and generally acting like a self-destructive brat towards everyone around him. He’s horrifically unappreciative of his mother Chungsing (a wonderful Joan Chen) who’s left to look after her kids while her husband works in Taiwan, an outright demon to his college-bound older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen), and quick to push away and ignore his friends. But his bark doesn’t translate to any real bite; like many kids his age, all that bluster belies a sweet, extremely insecure heart.
Chris Wang is the main character of “Dìdi,” the debut feature of Fremont, California-born filmmaker Sean Wang. As the shared last name between director and subject suggests, the film is absolutely drenched in signifiers of a semi-autobiographical story. Like Sean Wang, Chris (nicknamed Wang-Wang by friends) is a Fremont-raised son of Taiwanese immigrants, and has a budding interest in film that manifests in making incoherent YouTube prank videos. Sean Wang’s actual grandmother Chang Li Hua plays Chris’s doting Nai Nai in the film, the mother of his absent father and a constant stressor for Chungsing. (The “Didi” title comes from both women’s doting term of endearment for Chris, which literally means “little brother” in Mandarin). The tiny bedroom Chris spends his summer in is Sean Wang’s real childhood bedroom; the house in the film is dotted with paintings created in-universe by Chungsing and out of universe by Sean Wang’s mother.
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Very often, films as plainly based on the director’s real life as “Dìdi” can end up thin, with little outside perspective. In “Dìdi’s” case, however, sticking close to home proves to be a strength, conjuring a sense of time, place, and texture that sets the funny, fleeting movie apart from the Sundance Festival coming-of-age film pack.
Sean Wang’s script follows a series of vignettes throughout Chris’ summer, as he slowly makes increasingly poor decisions both at home and while out with friends. He chases a slightly older white girl Madi (Mahaela Park) only to drop her after a single embarrassment, commits social blunders that alienate him from his loose circle of friends, attempts to gain the friendship of several older skater boys by volunteering to film their tricks, and slowly pulls back from home as tensions between his mom and Nai Nai grow thicker. Each thread in the story feels well-rendered by the script, which is dryly funny and accurate in its depiction of how boys in that awkward stretch between childhood and teenage years communicate. Scenes are often structured like ticking bombs, building to Chris’ small but devastating social faux pas with farce-like precision.
In its loose structure and cringe comedy, “Dìdi” often resembles Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” another story about the transitory period between middle and high school that sets much of its action and drama on computer screens and social media. But where the Burnham film shrewdly examines the modern-day world of Instagram and iPhones, “Dìdi” excavates the cruder, lower-fi internet of its time, where kids chatted the day away on AIM (Chris’ username is the fittingly juvenile “BigWang510”) and aggressively curated their Facebook and MySpace pages.
The film is at its sharpest in the moments when Chris is online. The time waiting for your crush to message you back on AIM is depicted as the most nerve-wracking moments of your life; editor Arielle Zakowski frequently employs rapid quick cuts during these moments to emphasize just how life-or-death the stakes feel to Chris. Sean Wang’s script carefully and methodically recreates the dated internet speak of the film’s period, leading to facepalm moments like Chris attempting to woo Madi by telling her “A Walk to Remember” is “hella good.” Chris’ grainy, shaky YouTube videos littered throughout the film (the movie opens with a particularly chaotic prank that isn’t fully explained until much later on) are dead ringers for the type of DIY work you could find during the scrappy early days of the video-hosting platform. Offline, era-specific references — like the “Riot!” by Paramore shirt Chris often wears, or the “Superbad” tween watch party he attends with friends — root the film firmly in the hyper-specific slice of time it inhabits.
Aside from Izaac Wang, the majority of child actors are first-timers, and their unpolished presences add to the film’s sense of authenticity. The actors who play Chris’ family circle are particularly good; Joan Chen is a lovably weary and exhausted mother, and Shirley Chen produces authentic love/hate sibling chemistry with her on-screen little brother. Izaac Wang’s performance is the most vital in the film; without the right actor, Chris’ frequent selfishness could be difficult to take. But Wang — a child actor whose credits include the raunchy comedy “Good Boys” and kid movie “Clifford the Big Red Dog” — feels lived-in and authentic. He shows both great comedic timing and sensitivity, foregrounding Chris’ obvious thirst to be seen as cool by his peers and his obvious sensitive nature that he hides behind his attempted blasé front.
His performance and Sean Wang’s script also hone in on the largely unspoken (but ever-present) subtext that Chris’ insecurities stem from hangups about his culture. In a telling moment, a romantic playground hangout with Madi immediately flatlines when she coos that he’s “pretty cute, for an Asian.” Izaac Wang’s quiet dejection shows it is one of the worst things Chris could ever hear. Later, while crashing a house party thrown by much older teenagers, Chris interrupts a chant calling him “Asian Chris” by lying that he’s half-white.
“Dìdi” doesn’t quite resolve this thread. It buckles in the third act, which drops the comedic edge in favor of formless attempts to tug at the heartstrings. Despite valiant performances from Izaac Wang and Joan Chen, the relationship between Chris and Chungsing never feels as specific as the film’s middle-school social world. It’s a whiplash-inducing disparity when, at the end, the movie attempts to make their testy relationship the heart of the story. Still, by its closing credits, “Dìdi” resembles the often-exasperating boy it has been following for 90-some minutes: charming, rough around the edges, and brimming with potential.
“Dìdi” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.
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