Hardly a native flowering of extra-mainstream vision these days, American indies are trapped in a ghetto of second-class homogenization, less pandering than Hollywood but just as conservative. The little-people semi-stories, colorless dialogue, stiff-legged acting, sniffly amused middle-class soundtracks, deficit of visual intelligence: It’s a cinema its own lower-middle-class characters would find dull and patronizing, not due to narrative asceticism but for the lack of ambition or imagination. The Motel, Michael Kang’s modest Sundance applause reaper, doesn’t deserve to be shotgunned for the sins of 30 other movies. But the underwhelming syncopation of make-nice clichés is too familiar. Based on a novel by Ed Lin, Kang’s film is a pubertal dramedy centered on Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), a Chinese American 13-year-old junk-foodie who works as a maid at his mother’s backwater motel. There he impassively finds discarded porn, hangs with a 16-year-old waitress (Samantha Futerman), puts up with bullies, argues with his regally ferocious mother (Jade Wu) about a writing contest he entered, and learns about irresponsible loitering from a lonely Korean American whoremonger (Sung Kang) who leaves only to pick up booty and booze.
Kang shot his film in Poughkeepsie, but the locale has been anonymized, and the blind tumble into banality is easy and inevitable. (“I hate you!” Ernest eventually hollers at his hard-case mom; “You need me!” Ernest is told by his new hooker-loving pal; “I don’t need anyone!” is the reply.) If The Motel circles around to a single effective moment of generational confrontation amid the sulking, credit should perhaps go to Wu, expertly limning out the script’s most interesting character by far, a fearless immigrant woman we first see busting down a goldbricker’s door with a baseball bat. She radiates experience, which is more than can be said about the filmmakers. Michael Atkinson