A Picture of You, director J.P. Chan’s first feature film, thankfully avoids the saccharine of “families reunited because of a death of parent” movies with realism and levity and is a worthy addition to the growing canon of Asian American film.
Following an elegiac opening that recounts the passing of their mother (Jodi Long), we meet estranged siblings Kyle (Andrew Pang) and Jen (Jo Mei) who have traveled to their mother’s home to spend a few days to pack its contents. Their time together is tense and often spent bickering. They reminisce mostly when they are alone. While going through the files on their mother’s computer, they come across photos from a part of their mother’s life that they were not meant to see (and cheekily betray the film’s poignant title). At this shocking moment, Jen’s boyfriend and friend (Lucas Dixon and Teyonah Parris) who have come to help with the house arrive and change the dynamic in the house and provide comic relief to the movie. Jen’s fixation with learning more about this unknown part of their mother’s life starts with gently nudging a family friend for information and culminates in hi-tech stalker practices and drafting the other three into trespassing.
The story, written by Chan and Mei, feels believable. It explores tension, grief, nostalgia but doesn’t dutifully check them off a list. Brother and sister have their ups and downs and remain detached despite this shared experience and time together. The inopportune timing of non-family members interrupts and detours any march towards triumphant familial healing. The reveal about the mother is unconventional and humorous but does not come across as a gimmick because through skillfully understated earnest sentiments of her friends and townspeople and dreamy flashbacks that highlight Long’s joyful smile, she is effectively portrayed as loved and missed .
Pang and Mei do a great job conveying the siblings’ personalities and the strain between Kyle and Jen, but I would have liked to know more about them – particularly why and when their relationship fractured. We learn Kyle is a divorcé and felt burdened by being his mother’s caretaker for months, but little is known about Jen other than what is shown in the present – she is the cooler of the two, smokes pot, and is sassy.
Except for an unnecessarily confrontational race joke easily pulled off by Jen but later awkwardly by Kyle (who shows priceless looks both times), there is no reference to the family’s race. In an industry where actors of Asian descent are often still typecast and the Asian American experience is sometimes used as a punchline, it is refreshing to see this family portrayed as a family without any qualifiers.
Learn more about the film from Chan’s interview with Cinevue.
– The soundtrack by composer Yeah-Ming Chen’s recurring musical theme is wonderful.
– Cinematographer Andrew Reed’s scenes of biking and running down long, empty roads and the shot of leaves reflected in a car windshield are really great.
– The house used in the film is quite architecturally unique.
The film plays at AMC Village 7 (3rd Ave and 11th Street) through July 3.