Directed by Michael Kang
The Motel is a sweet little coming of age story that hits all the familiar quirky Independent movie beats but never overstays its welcome. Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), who works at his mother’s modest motel, is a thirteen year old kid burrowing straight into puberty and attracting all the trouble that such a thing entails. He finds a mentor in the form of a temporary resident, Sam (Sung Kang), whose faults we can see from a mile away but who quickly becomes an advocate to Ernest’s struggle.
The two of them have a father-son bond, and it’s this intimacy that Sam perhaps preys on in order to stay at the motel. His credit card is denied early on, but Ernest covers for him because he craves the male energy Sam offers.
Ernest has a sister and a single mother (Jade Wu). He has a grandfather too, but that character is mostly just around the edges. It’s the two women in Ernest’s family and Christine (Samantha Futerman) the girl of his dreams, who have helped shape him into the boy he is today.
It’s also those three women whom Ernest rebels against. He is constantly feuding with his younger sister, and one of the movie’s longest arcs details the frustration he holds towards his mother. The conclusion of this storyline will be the final, cathartic beat of the film. Finally, Christine is the older, cooler girl next door, and when Ernest’s advances are eventually, inevitably rebuffed, he will rebel against her.
So Sam is the person left to turn to. He helps Ernest deal with his frustrations, and in the process he unloads some of his own. Sam is the type of wild card character, someone very rough around the edges who we just know will soon let his guard down and expose the melancholy which breeds much of his outlandish behavior. His is the type of character who is most common in coming of age stories, someone who proves to be a strict lesson to the young protagonist, whether that’s an example of what to avoid or what to aspire to. In many cases, such as with The Motel, he is someone the young main character admires, and it’s the sort of death of a hero that helps the main character learn a lesson about life, what’s truly meaningful, etc.
Many of these beats feel a bit conventional but no less earned. Despite some of that mid-2000s indie film aesthetic, The Motel is a sincere little portrait of life as the child of immigrants to America and of life as an adolescent teenager. It’s a cross section between these two demographics, and I’d say that it’s in this much more broad teenager category that the film sneaks in a much more sentimental story about generational differences.
The divide between Earnest and his mother is ever-growing as the story chugs along. She, presumably, has had to work her ass off to make her own luck in America, and running a small motel is no small feat. We see just how much work goes into even the smallest problems, and the film opens with her using a baseball bat to force people out of their rooms who have stayed past the agreed upon time.
From what we gather, there is no room for leisure in her life. In contrast, Ernest has plenty of time to wander around, and it’s within this leisure that he explores his surroundings, people as a whole and himself. This is despite the fact that he’s a part time employee of his mother’s motel, doing everything from running the front desk to cleaning every inch of a recently used and abused room.
When he’s not working or doing homework, Earnest has ample time to wander around and get into trouble. He eats egg rolls outside of the restaurant where Christine works, finds porno mags in the rooms he cleans and keeps them to himself, watches the occasional drunken parking lot fight and soon begins to spend time with the enigmatic, reckless Sam.
Much of the story deals with all those adolescent things, like a sudden wave of lust, petulance, ill-advised hero worship, etc. but the film will wrap that up in a neat little manner before it ends on the most sincere note of the story, turning something like American Pie into something much more wholesome.
So The Motel has it’s cake and eats it too. It gets to be a comedy with certain crude behavior but is ultimately a family drama. There is an emotional center to the story, in other words, and this justifies much of the more extreme aspects to the story.
Up Next: Unsane (2018), Filmworker (2018), Hope and Glory (1987)