There's a strong tradition in recent American entertainment that almost celebrates the horrors of growing up. From the novels of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, to My So-Called Life and Malcolm in the Middle, to Pretty in Pink and Welcome to the Dollhouse, American culture indulges in a sort of gleeful dissection of every childhood trauma, from the smallest slight to the largest, most devastating blow. Much of the time, perhaps illogically, these microscopic looks are executed in the service of comedy, likely with the understanding that, if we didn't laugh at our remembered struggles, we might be reduced to tears on an embarrassingly regular basis. Sometimes, though, as in both Welcome to the Dollhouse and The Motel, writer-director Michael Kang's debut feature which opens today in New York, the uneasy laughter does nothing to lessen the pain. Instead, it serves only to highlight the horrible injustice we're witnessing, and render the stories told in those films even more wrenching for audiences.
Kang's film tells the story of Ernest, a chubby, bespectacled 13-year-old who lives and works in a small, roadside motel run by his mother. Wonderfully played by Jeffrey Chyau, Ernest is almost painfully laconic, speaking rarely and moving quickly only when he tries to escape the bullying of Roy (Conor J. White), a bored kid who's lived in the motel with his sister and deadbeat dad for weeks. Apart from the furtive masturbation session prompted by a girly magazine, the world has little impact on Ernest; even when he's upset by something, it's hard to tell. Trapped in a frustratingly unresponsive body, Ernest doesn't even think quickly. He's not stupid, he just takes his time in making decisions, and is unashamed of carefully examining things that interest him, even if that examination involves staring at motel guests.