Judge Adam Arseneau used to live at a Motel 6, but he couldn't afford to pay six dollars a night.
"Die at twelve, live a full life. Everything after that's just an insult."
A comedy from the makers of Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Good Girl, and Chuck & Buck, and winner of the Humanitas Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, The Motel is a coming-of-age film set in a sleazy motel.
All I know is, any film that starts out with a Ween song is bound to be trouble, if you know what I mean.
Facts of the Case
Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) is a 13-year-old boy who lives and works at a sleazy motel that rents by the hour on a desolate strip of suburban bi-way. Son of Taiwanese immigrants, he is alienated from his tyrannical mother, his baby sister, and his grandfather with poor English skills. He spends his days at school and his nights cleaning the stained sheets, discarded porno magazines, and boxes of fried chicken from the rooms left behind by the revolving door of odd tenants. The hotel is a rest stop for the despondent and broke, both financially and emotionally. His only friend is Christine (Samantha Futerman, Memoirs of a Geisha), a 15-year-old girl who works at the local Chinese restaurant whom he harbors strong (but confusing) feelings for.
One day, a sleazy but charming Korean-American man checks into the motel. Sam Kim (Sung Kang, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) throws down an expired credit card and proceeds to invite a series of prostitutes into his room. He notices Ernest and befriends the boy, becoming a kind of dysfunctional father figure to him and his sister, much to his mother's chagrin. With Sam's help, Ernest is about to go on a wild ride towards manhood, for better or worse.
The Motel might be the kind of film Wes Anderson would make if he was Asian-American. Similar in spirit and deadpan humor, even the DVD packaging, in its hand-drawn cartoonish pastel style, has the same quirkish charm. Imagine a pre-adolescent version of Bottle Rocket where the characters never left the hotel and simply languished in hormonal agony and pre-pubescent growth spurts, or My So-Called Life if it had more hookers in it.
Obstinately rooted in quirkiness and adolescent awkwardness, The Motel is like watching old family videos of yourself as a gangly pre-teenager. It is a mixed experience, full of bewilderment, disbelief, sympathy, and bemusement. What I find particularly admirable and clever about The Motel is how, despite being firmly rooted in its own racial identity about being Chinese in America, the film has a near-universal appeal for all ages and genders. After all, growing up is hard to do, no matter who you are; doubly so if you have to clean up after a never-ending stream of prostitutes and scumbags.
As the erstwhile Sam takes the boy under his wing, he gives Ernest a father figure—albeit one that's not ideal—for the first time in his life. Likewise, Sam gets a friend out of Ernest and an element of normality during a chaotic time in his own life. Unsurprisingly, dysfunction only breeds more dysfunction, and things go from uncomfortably awkward to outright train wreck for Ernest fairly quickly under Sam's guidance. As the movie moves towards its inevitable conclusion, it grows increasingly painful to watch, but is undeniably real and authentic. Young Jeffrey Chyau lacks the experience of a seasoned actor (and it shows), but puts his heart and soul into the role, turning out a great debut performance.
Delicate, awkward, and painfully adolescent, The Motel works because it digs into themes of alienation, detachment, and raging hormones, all of which are universal, transcending racial and gender boundaries. I'd hate to meet the person who can't identify with the lonely, painfully disaffected Ernest. He is the picture child of pre-teen pubescent awkwardness, a pain that everyone has gone through, or will soon enough.
With a running time of 76 minutes, there is nary a wasted scene in the film. Every sequence is heartbreakingly sad, hilariously awkward, or bittersweet. The film's humor is subtle and layered, and most of the laugh-out moments are shamefully guilty. On the downside, The Motel is short, short, short. I liked this film so much that I wanted more of it. The ending stumbles a bit, but, truth be told, there really wasn't any other way to resolve the story. With good writing, the characters themselves ultimately determine how the film ends, not the other way around. Though bittersweet, the resolution of The Motel makes perfect sense, considering its protagonists.
Shot for a modest $250,000, the film has a fairly decent presentation. Visually, the transfer is nicely saturated with reds, sharp, and detailed. Black levels are solid, but the film is unusually damaged and marred by scratches and print damage. Audio choices include a 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround track, both of which are forceful and clean. The score, a beautiful ambient and xylophone is charming and whimsical, suiting the film perfectly. Dialogue is clear, but the fidelity of the on-site recording can be hit-or-miss at times. The master audio occasionally distorts and clips when characters unexpectedly scream out or make sudden movements, and indoor dialogue sometimes echoes and sounds unnatural. All of this is excusable for a low-budget indie film, but unfortunate all the same.
Extra material is decent: we get a 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette filmed on-set with cast and crew, as well as a full-length commentary track with director Michael Kang and actors Jeffrey Chyau and Sung Kang. The commentary is relaxed and detailed, going behind the scenes to show the challenges of creating a film on a tight budget. The actors give some nice insight into their characters, though Jeffrey has clearly gone through puberty and back again—his voice has dropped a full octave. In addition to some trailers and previews, a small segment called "Director's Picks" takes a look at specific sequences from the film set to crew commentary; a cute, if not short, extra. Overall, this is a fine collection of supplements for a small-budget film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The inherent pitfall of such a bittersweet adolescent tale is the way The Motel hits notes with its audience and makes long-buried feelings resonate from within like a tuning fork. For some people, the experience can be savored and enjoyed, but others may not be so fortunate. The painful mix of sweetness and blunt-force trauma in The Motel makes for a fantastic film, but it opens doors in your heart that many would prefer to keep under 24-hour guard and welded shut.
As painfully awkward as it is hilarious, The Motel feels like going back and reading all the love letters you wrote to your crush in your class in seventh grade, but never sent. The experience, as you can imagine, is bittersweet. As coming-of-age black comedies go, this film hits all the right buttons.
Puberty's rough, man. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
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