Middle school age is hell. That’s not really up for debate. Growing up is hard, and for 13-year-old Chris Wang (Izaac Wang), the summer of 2008 before he starts high school is proving to be the toughest of his life. Navigating friends, crushes, online chatting, home life, raging hormones, and braces, Dìdi (弟弟) tells a standout coming-of-age story with both hilarious and insightful honesty.
The feature debut of Taiwanese-American filmmaker Sean Wang, Dìdi opens with a home video of Chris and his pals blowing his neighbor’s mailbox to smithereens. The boys cackle with glee as they run down the street away from the scene of their crime, instantly letting us know the kind of mischievous and rebellious kid Chris is. This intro also literally puts us in his point of view thanks to the digital handheld approach. We frequently return to this digital POV as Chris’ interest in making home videos, specifically skateboarding videos, continues to grow.
Dìdi gets its title from the Mandarin name Chris’ family calls him by, which means “little brother.” It’s an affectionate term of endearment that he obviously doesn’t enjoy hearing too much. Chris – or Dìdi – lives in Fremont, CA with his artist mother, Chungsing (Joan Chen, who also executive produces), his Univeristy-bound older sister Vivian (Shirley Chen), and Nai Nai (Chang Li Hua), his grandmother on his father’s side. That particular man is someone we never see, and neither do they. We’re told that Dìdi’s father works in Taiwan and simply sends money over to the family, and his absence resonates throughout the entire picture.
At school, Chris is graced with the name “Wang-Wang” by his peers, one of the many microaggressions that the awkward and impressionable young man is forced to just laugh along with. But Chris, like most kids his age, is willing to do just about anything to make friends, whether that’s blowing up mailboxes, swallowing a lit roach, exaggerating about his video skills, or downplaying his full Taiwanese heritage. He’s also shameless about how he attempts to get the attention of his crush, Madi (Mahaela Park), like lying about his mutual love for Paramore and Hayley Williams and chick-flicks like A Walk to Remember.
Dìdi pulls heavily from writer-director Sean Wang’s childhood, going so far as to cast his own grandmother as Nai Nai and shooting certain scenes in his old family home in Northern California. It’s the way that Wang portrays those formative moments of his life via Chris that makes this movie hit the mark of being both extremely specific and completely universal. That’s the mark of any good coming-of-age story, and that honesty is what puts Dìdi up with the likes of other recent greats like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and Jonah Hill’s mid90s while shooting for the gut-busting humor of Superbad or Good Boys (which Izaac Wang also starred in).
What helps set Dìdi apart from the rest of the pack is its first-generation Taiwanese angle and its 2008 setting – the age of AOL instant messenger, the early days of YouTube, and the gradual graduation from MySpace to Facebook. That digital disconnect keeps Chris at arm’s length from the rest of his family, whom he’s constantly getting into shouting matches with as his early teenage angst continues to manifest. Cinematographer Sam Davis plays with that online, Searching-esque style while also delivering powerful, more traditional sequences that can tug on the heartstrings.
Thanks to tremendous performances from its cast, particularly breakout star Izaac Wang (Raya and the Last Dragon) and Hollywood veteran Joan Chen (Twin Peaks, The Last Emperor), the family drama becomes Dìdi’s most gripping aspect, as both Chris and his mom’s respective character arcs complement each other in a tenderly beautiful way. Dìdi is a story about figuring out who you are during one of the biggest transitional periods in any person’s life. Chris acts like a chameleon, changing into whatever kind of person he thinks he needs to be depending on whoever’s around and always frantically doing online research to make it happen. Anybody who’s ever struggled to fit in, while at the same time not really knowing who you want to be yourself, will find companionship with Chris and his desperate attempts at likability.
The film makes you cheer for Chris’ wins and groan and cringe at his many failures. However, it’s his central loneliness and lack of life direction that keeps you invested in seeing him through to the other, brighter side of this tough stage of life. Dìdi goes through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout its brief 91-minute runtime. There are moments of intimate, tear-jerking conversations between mother and son, BOFA jokes, horrifically botched first kisses, subtle but nonetheless hurtful bits of racism, and awkward online flirting just to name a few.
Filmmaker Sean Wang genuinely captures heartfelt sentimentality, laugh-out-loud teen antics, and painful truths in Dìdi. It’s a moving and earnest take on this particular part of growing up, and it proves Wang’s capabilities and talents behind the camera in a solid, non-showy way that will certainly make you keep an eye out for whatever this storyteller decides to do next.