Every awards season, there is a brand-new coming-of-age flick that makes the rounds in the circuit but never seems to move far beyond token nominations. This year, Minari provides a unique take on the subgenre, but does it have what it takes to be a real player at the Academy Awards?
Minari, Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a semi-autobiographical depiction of Chung’s own upbringing in the 1980s deep south. A Korean immigrant family led by Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) moves from California to rural Arkansas to try to achieve the proverbial “American Dream” to make a better life for his family selling Korean produce. The family is taken on a journey to find the balance between the life that roots them and the culture that surrounds them.
The film is a unique take on a coming-of-age story that takes the entire family on a journey of self-discovery. Much like previous awards contenders Lady Bird and Roma, Minari is a very personal and unique film to director Lee Isaac Chung. The Korean American experience, much like the experiences of other minority groups, is impossible to fully understand from an outside perspective. Presumably, this is why year after year films like these rarely manage to dominate the awards circuit.
Minari’s inclusion in the highly competitive coming-of-age genre means it must meet an impossibly high standard. From an individual, film-making perspective, Minari is top notch quality. From an awards perspective, it needs to top the best of the best in the genre to justify recognition from voters. The current bar is set at 2016’s Moonlight, which took home Oscars in three of the four major categories (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor). Unfortunately for Minari, it may be good, but it’s no Moonlight.
Everyone involved in this film deserves recognition for bringing their A-game to telling this story. The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun finally gets his chance to show off his leading man potential, and he does not waste the opportunity. His family chemistry with his on-screen wife Monica (YerI Han), son David (Alan Kim), and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is incredible casting all around. A particular standout in the cast is Yuh-Jung Youn as grandmother Soonja, which makes it fitting that she is the film’s strongest awards play in the supporting actress category.
The film gained a lot of attention towards the beginning of awards season when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association decided to qualify it only as a foreign language film despite being completely produced in the United States. The film is naturally written in a mix of Korean and English, which works well to create a sense of authenticity. The switch between languages fittingly sets up the cultural tug-of-war that the Yi family struggles with. The result is an authentic portrayal of a story that is very specific to a certain group.
It’s not impossible for a relative outsider to personally connect to the experiences of the characters in Minari.Still, both the biggest strength and the biggest weakness of the coming-of-age genre is that the full emotional depth can only be felt by a relatively small group of people. Minari paints in such meticulous strokes that it personally felt harder to connect to than other viewers surely felt.
For those who identify or relate to the lives of the characters in Minari, the film is a special experience and an emotional journey into the lives of realistically complex family. However, for those who don’t have a personal connection to the culture or experiences portrayed in the film, it’s difficult to see past the ever-familiar formula.
Filmnetic Grade: A-
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