Ernest (newcomer Jeffrey Chyau) is a chubby 13 year-old living and working at his family's isolated motel. Unable to win the respect of his mother, troubled by kids his own age, and embarrassed by his pre-teen urges, Ernest is in hell with no way out. Sparking a friendship with an equally damaged guest (Sun Kang, "Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"), Ernest finds a chance to grow up and vent his fears. However, in this isolated place, will anyone care?
"The Motel" reminds me of the independent film boom in the mid-1990s, when anyone with a camera and a threadbare story to tell was trying to sell their little slice of life. Since that aspiration had its throat slit by the growth of the DV market, it's a treat to see a scrappy piece of cinema like "Motel" again.
"Motel" doesn't feature much in the way of a story; it's more of a free-flowing voyage of adolescence, dipping into areas of awkwardness, uncontrollable sexuality, and pubescent frustrations. Director Michael Kang has a delicious hold on Ernest's insecurities, splayed out in a location where he can't hide his desires or his mistakes. The motel acts likes a prison for Ernest, where routine nips at his patience, but also provides a safe place for exploration and shelter.
Kang lets Ernest lead the story, not a traditional plot, and the randomness of "Motel" mirrors the location. Scenes check-in and check-out as they please, lead around by Chyau's observant and wonderfully awkward performance. Kang and Chyau make for a great team, with Chyau able to give an honest performance that requires humiliation, but never disrespect. The same goes for the Asian-American touches of them film, which stay pronounced, but never addressed. Kang's hold on atmosphere is impressive, and he keeps away from tempting sitcom-like stabs at comedy. "Motel" is uneasy and free, and there seems to be quite the effort to keep it that way.
Clocking in at 70 minutes, "Motel" seems to want to offer more story late in the game, but is afraid to pursue anything further. The movie concludes with a series of breakdowns and consequences and loses its sense of place. Kang wants to give Ernest something dramatic to do to pay off his struggles, but what's selected here feels grabby and non-committal. This is a strong filmmaking effort, and I look forward to seeing what Kang is able to do with a larger budget and a more corralled screenplay. "Motel" tends to die by the same wandering attributes that lend it initial inspiration, and that's a disappointment in this otherwise unassuming, appealing film.
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