Busy but bored, what Ben wants (besides “getting the girl”) is to break through the confines of his stultifying path to excellence. His engagement in criminal activities, on the surface, would seem incomprehensible (at least to his parents and non-Asians) given his academic excellence, range of extracurricular activities, and dedication to the community. But the cheat sheets, scams, and violence all are directed towards defying some invisible oppressor; there is no bully that beats him up for being a “nerd” or picks on him for receiving straight-A’s. The specter that he struggles to vanquish is the model minority image around which his dizzyingly banal life revolves. This is a particularly insidious and successful version of racism which keeps the oppressed on an unquestioned path to “success.” And in the end, this is the path to which Ben returns after his venture into criminality. And it’s the model minority image that saves the crew from overt suspicions and the potential ramifications of killing Steve.
Asians have often been portrayed in films involving gangs and martial arts, and considering the popularity of films like Old Boy directed by Chan-wook Park, the violence and criminality in this movie is not particularly startling. Does this mean that white America has a divided sensibility about what Asian/Asian-Americans are like?
Is there a perception that non-assimilated Asians have a violent streak that becomes suppressed in the domesticated, asexual, and weak Asian American male?
Perhaps the most personally affecting scene was the one in which Virgil is sitting in the car with the crew after battering a jock at the party. The intense rush he experiences from being in a position of power quickly disintegrates into fear about what will happen when his parents find out, something the others were already pondering in silence. Next to them, another car pulls up, this one containing Asian American male teens that never had any ambitions concerning Ivy League universities or being editor of the high school newspaper. It then becomes apparent that they are only posing and their return to suburbia is inevitable and perhaps even preferable.
What I missed in the film especially was an exploration of how the Asian American teenage girl might react to the model minority trap. Stephanie, though played by an A-A actress, is in most other dimensions a stock, cute white cheerleader that the protagonist attempts to court. She is adopted by a white family, doesn’t experience stigmatization, and has a wealthy, suave boyfriend. But I was left wondering whether or not she experiences any of the same frustrations as Ben and how she reconciles her more complicated identity with this model minority image.