Kale can’t hold on forever.
The premise is familiar. Two childhood best friends of the opposite sex lose touch after growing up only to find themselves in close proximity again almost two decades later. One became a huge success elsewhere while the other remained home and thus without much opportunity for escaping that neighborhood’s limited resources—the former falling prey to a materialistic superiority complex while the latter stayed “down to earth” on a depressive trajectory steeped in a fear of failure. Will celebrity chef Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) remember her roots upon returning to San Francisco without her rich entrepreneur boyfriend (Daniel Dae Kim‘s Brandon) on her arm? Will Marcus Kim (Randall Park) see her confidence and let some rub off to follow his own dreams? Will they ultimately get back together?
Where Always Be My Maybe offers something new is the fact that Sasha and Marcus’ feelings weren’t unrequited. While they never evolved their friendship into a romantic coupling, they did have sex. Maybe things would have been better if their night of passion wasn’t as awkward as one would expect it to be between gawky teens ruled by hormones shortly after his mother (and her surrogate mother) Judy (Susan Park) passed away. There simply wasn’t time to smooth things over with her going away to college and him staying to help his widower father (James Saito‘s Harry). Life therefore went on with sixteen years pulling them down very different paths until fate (in the shape of Michelle Buteau‘s Veronica, Sasha’s business partner and old classmate of both) intervenes.
You can surely guess how the plot will move forward because it does follow many of the same rom/com beats you’d expect. Marcus will reveal he has a girlfriend (Vivian Bang‘s Jenny), Sasha’s boyfriend will do something stupid, and she will find someone new (Keanu Reeves as a wonderfully surreal version of himself) before he can tell her how he truly feels. The friendship they lost will reconstitute itself to complicate matters and Marcus’ refusal to leave his environment (he won’t even go across town to help his band with Charlyne Yi, Karan Soni, and Lyrics Born get more popular) will surely not gel with Sasha’s career-oriented move to New York City once her new restaurant in the Bay Area officially opens. Commence antics and heart.
If the structure itself can’t bring a fresh look to the genre, films like Always Be My Maybe must rely upon the talent instead. That they’re all friends and collaborators in real life only helps matters more since it ensures everyone is comfortable in roles they have created for themselves. So it should be no surprise that Randall Park and Ali Wong’s script (co-written with Park’s playwright colleague Michael Golamco) would find itself in the hands of director Nahnatchka Khan—she being the creator of the television show “Fresh Off the Boat” on which he stars and she served as writer. Who better to know each other’s sensibilities, skills, and humor than those you’ve worked with for half a decade? The set must have been a dream.
So now you’re able to augment the generic narrative with the perfect sort of crazy only you can deliver. Sometimes that’s in the form of Park and Wong acting fools as teen versions of themselves with braces and insecurities and other times it’s the pair sweetly smiling at each other despite being unable to hug since the way things ended proves too embarrassing to confront. Both characters are also allowed to exist in their respective bubbles too so Sasha can deal with the fast-paced elitism of wealth and fame while Marcus realizes the psychological prison he’s placed himself in by believing his more than capable Dad can’t survive without him. This lets them independently ratchet up the insanity for a wild collision with caricature Keanu as their unhinged spirit guide.
Just because this zany streak is where the film’s replay value lies, however, doesn’t mean the filmmakers didn’t also pack plenty of emotional weight. You don’t have to look further than Judy teaching Sasha how to cook Korean food and introduce her to her life’s passion—the bond between Marcus’ family and her cementing on a level that completely transcends the potential for romance. But there’s also those sixteen years apart that made an impact neither can escape without introspection. So don’t expect these two to reunite out of lust and instantly live happily ever after. This film isn’t about them as a couple and whether that will work. It concerns two disparate souls struggling to figure out who they want to be for themselves. Present trumps future.
The supporting cast is crucial in this regard because Sasha and Marcus need their strength to recognize what matters outside of class superfluity and gendered societal stereotypes. They keep these two grounded in order to rise above the satire of both grungy dive bars and hipster-chic snobbery. The jokes can therefore land via pure entertainment rather than political statement because they’re merely creating scenarios in which the leads can have their eyes opened towards their own participation in the cycle of idiocy surrounding their lives. Veronica is there to hit Sasha with truth bombs that delve below artifice while Harry stands by his son’s side to ensure Marcus finds the courage to stop pitying himself and go for broke. And Reeves’ chaotic energy arrives to speed things along.
That doesn’t mean the romance part isn’t successful too, though. The inevitability of it is why Marcus and Sasha seek to grow by embracing the other’s pathway to better round out their own desires. And by giving them a sexual history already, they’re able to spend more effort on proving the connection between them is deeper than lust or some idea of “what might have been.” They can also be honest because it’s the best thing they have to offer. This isn’t about winning someone over as much as getting past what losing each other did to who they were and who they wanted to become. The hurdle isn’t attraction, but uncompromised self-worth. Love was never the problem. They stopped liking each other because they stopped liking themselves.
 Ali Wong, Randall Park – Ed Araquel / Netflix
 Keanu Reeves – Doane Gregory / Netflix
 Michelle Buteau – Ed Araquel / Netflix