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Sundance 2024: 'Dìdi' is a First-Gen Portrait of the Late Aughts

The coming-of-age story is a tried and true formula for festival success. Many writers have launched their directorial careers by getting in touch with their childhood memories and telling a personal yet universal story. Jonah Hill’s Mid 90's (2018) brought to life the Y2K skater subculture in L.A. whereas Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018) reimagined the transition to high school in the age of media overexposure. Born from the same cloth is Sean Wang’s Dìdi (2024), which follows Chris (Izaac Wang), a Taiwanese-American boy in the late 2000s.



Wang’s movie navigates familiar beats as the aforementioned films: shifting friend groups, embarrassing first kiss stories, strained parental relationships and the like. The director identified Stand by Me (1986) as a major source of inspiration for the film, with the added complexity of a diverse cast that reflected his childhood surroundings: first-gen families. Although the movie will pull on the heartstrings of young boys who saw their social circles reworked by the forces of puberty, the Stand by Me-style friendship dynamics pale in comparison to the domestic drama. Joan Chen plays Chungsing, Chris’s mother and an aspiring painter. Her story is sacrifice, as she is left to take care of Chris and his sister while her husband works abroad. The last 40 minutes in particular accentuate the criticality of her story and Chris’s blindness to her struggle. The meat of the movie lies in Chris’s gradual acceptance of the fact that his mother’s story is part of his own.


Complementing Chungsing’s arc is Chris’s sister, Vivian (Shirley Chen), who will soon be heading to college. Chris and Vivian bicker as any siblings do – and bratty Chris even goes as far as to pee in her lotion bottle – but with time, Vivian learns to appreciate the little time she has left with her brother. He may be emotionally childish and undeserving of coddling, but it’s going to be much more lonely once she leaves. Every defensive voice crack is a cry for help from a very confused 13-year-old, who, despite his multicultural surroundings, still wants to convince his older skater friends that he’s only half-Asian.


Wang makes a meaningful choice by illustrating the innocent prejudices that persist among Chris's peers. Before Madi, his crush, leans in for a kiss, she tells him that “he’s pretty cute… for an Asian.” He accepts this as a compliment, although his slight grimace suggests that his gut may be telling him otherwise. His friends also hype him up for his date by saying that Madi “has yellow fever.” Chris is seemingly unable to reconcile the parts of his identity that are assumed about his race with the traits that he understands as unique to him. His cruelty to his mom stems from this dilemma, and after his more mature friends reprimand him for being rude to her, he finds himself completely and totally alone. He resorts to DMing his MySpace chatbot.


By fully exploring the film's preemptively-retro setting, Wang paints the origins of the early internet adolescence: MySpace, Facebook and a primitive YouTube. Friends are only a click away, but the isolation of missed experiences is that much more potent. A sizable portion of the film takes place on the computer, as Chris stalks, chats and searches for answers to all of life's hardest-hitting questions. Major props must be given to Wang for tapping back into his teenage brain to convey Chris's painstakingly accurate text lingo and immaculate online alias (@bigwang). If you weren't sure if this movie was at least partially autobiographical, there's your big hint.


Wang allows Chris to take hit after hit in the movie. No one will deny that being 13 sucks, and the film’s character resolutions are not exactly reassuring. But suffering during the armpit of your life builds character, and Chris’s instincts are not all bad. Dìdi best amplifies the abrupt dawning of insecurity that comes with teenage independence. For every cliché, there is an earnest dialogue about why young brains default to that behavior. The feelings are so visceral and doom seems inevitable. We just need to be reminded that there is always time for redemption.


Dìdi has been acquired by Focus Features for distribution.


-Lydia

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