A raw and raucous, funny and touching coming of age story – does Sundance still do those? – “Didi” brings some much-welcome buzz to a low-key Sundance Film Festival with the story of its title character, a 13-year-old Asian boy navigating life in Fresno, California.
Sean Wang’s debut feature, playing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, is based on his own childhood in northern California and nimbly portrays the code switching life of an American-Taiwanese immigrant (played by newcomer Izaak Wang), who lives with his Chinese-speaking mother (Joan Chen), his sister (Shirley Chen) and Seam Wang’s actual grandmother, Nei-Nei. (More on this later.)
At home, Didi’s family speaks Chinese mixed with some English. Outside in the world, his friends are Indian, Asian, white and Black. They’re also all manner of cringeworthy. Most cringey is Didi (or Wang Wang, or Chris, depending on the circumstance) himself, as he yearns for the pretty girl in his class but is incapable of overcoming his own awkward self, even though she likes him.
The movie opens with a literal explosion as we meet Didi’s raucous teenage world with a grainy, herky-jerky video of the teenager and his friends blowing up a neighbor’s mailbox. (A dead squirrel later proves to be part of the shenanigans.)
The film is full of plenty of gross fart jokes (including a fart scene with Didi’s mom), stupid teenage stunts (peeing in the sister’s body lotion) and awkward courtship, all of it set in the distant mists of the 1990s, complete with flip phones, AOL instant messaging, the early days of Facebook and a sound track to match.
The tension at home rachets up with the absence of Didi’s father and the teenager’s deep need for a parent or mentor who understands the struggle to straddle his American and immigrant Chinese cultures.
Writer and director Wang, from Fremont, is a Google Creative Lab 5 alum and a Sundance Institute Directors and Screenwriters Lab fellow. His latest film, “Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó” (Grandma & Grandma), premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. It also won the Audience Prize at TheWrap’s Shortlist Film Festival last year and is a shortlisted nominee for the Academy Awards in the narrative shorts category.
Izaak Wang does a solid job of portraying the inarticulate, awkward reality of being 13. Nei Nei is a superstar of comic understatement as a typical Chinese grandmother, constantly criticizing Didi’s mom for not doing a good enough job and urging Didi to eat.
In its early years, Sundance became the central place for coming of age stories of young men and “Didi” harkens back to that tradition with an authentic and deeply felt personal story.
“Didi” is a sales title at Sundance.
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