Rom-coms have the tricky task of straddling the “rom” and the “com” part, with a lot of star-steered vehicles leaning toward the former. Always Be My Maybe thankfully focuses on the latter; there are a lot of laughs packed into its friendship-becomes-something-more story.
In keeping with the Netflix rom-com tradition of encouraging new talent, ABMM offers Fresh Off The Boat director Nahnatchka Khan her film directorial debut; Grimm scribe Michael Golamco wrote the screenplay with the movie’s stars, Ali Wong and Randall Park. The film smartly kicks off by showing the pair as adorable childhood best friends, so that we’re rooting for them right out of the gate. After a hormone-fueled teenage fight, the two veer off on wildly different life paths, with Sasha (Wong) becoming a celebrity chef, while Marcus (Park) stays in his hometown of San Francisco to take care of his father, a widower.
As Sasha and Marcus edge closer together, the movie drops all sorts of commentary on topics from Asian culture (“Koreans use scissors for everything,” Marcus’ mom tells young Sasha as she snips some scallions) to the absurdity of ever-more-complicated fusion food movements (a fancy meal includes “the essence of Caesar salad” and “crystalized lavender sugar bubbles”). But what’s most refreshing about ABMM is all the rom-com tropes that it hurdles right over. Sasha is a perfectionist workaholic, yet she is never forced to apologize or make allowances for those tendencies; in fact, the movie doesn’t demand that she change at all. Marcus crafts his lifestyle around hers, instead of the other way around. There’s a Shakespeare-inspired balcony scene, but the genders are reversed. The movie doesn’t drop the curtain, like so many rom-coms do, after the inevitable declaration of love, sealed with a kiss; instead it sticks around after the “happily ever after” to see how the couple is going to define the actual parameters of their relationship.
Yes, there’s still a “wandering through the city besotted” montage and the “passionate declaration of love” speech—ABMM isn’t about to toss out the entire rom-com playbook and start from scratch. But the long history between these two characters adds more depth to their relationship than typical “love at first sight” fodder. When they meet up again as adults, in an appealingly awkward reunion, each still recognizes the person they knew in high school—and it’s not just the demands of the romantic plot that bind them, but also the personality traits they admire in each other: He’s drawn to her ambition, she to his compassion.
Ultimately, Wong and Park and their mutual affection carry the movie, assisted by a gut-busting cameo by Keanu Reeves, of all people, portraying a do-gooder rival for Sasha’s affections. (When asked who his adolescent crush was, he replies, “Mother Teresa.”) The denouement may be tied up a bit too quickly and neatly to feel realistic (even by rom-com standards), and there are some random plot points—like a character’s weight loss and a Diana Ross impersonator—that never get wholly fleshed out. Overall, though, Always Be My Maybe offers a charming, consistently funny take on the When Harry Met Sally formula. Honestly, Reeves’ scenes alone make it a Friday-night must-see.