Review by Sean Boelman
Filmmaker Sean Wang recently landed an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short for his film Nai Nai & Wài Pó, about his grandmothers. His family is also the fodder for his feature debut Dídi, which is a very charming watch, even if it fails to rise above the limitations of coming-of-age tropes.
Dídi follows a Taiwanese-American 13-year-old who, in the summer before he goes to high school, discovers an entirely new world of skating, flirting, and family than he knew before. The comparisons abound here — one could say it’s a mix of Eighth Grade and mid90s, or combine any number of older or newer movies in the genre in their stead.
The themes that Wang explores in his semi-autobiographical feature debut are hardly surprising. It’s about growing up, cultural identity, finding your place in the world, and learning about love (from various sources). The problem is… it says nothing particularly new or profound about these things. There were no less than four coming-of-age movies that premiered at Sundance, and this one doesn’t deviate much from the formula.
However, where Dídi fails most is in exploring the nuances of its relationships. Perhaps it’s because Wang wanted to not air everything out in this semi-autobiographical tale, but it feels like the conflict between the protagonist and his mother isn’t fully developed. Of course, kids fight with their parents — and sometimes over the stupidest things. But the way Wang’s script presents their beef with one another feels strangely petty, and that’s clearly not the intention.
Izaac Wang (who you might recognize as one of the supporting actors in the raunchy comedy Good Boys) is very charming in the lead role. His comedic timing is great, and he nails the boisterous nature of the character without ever making him annoying. Joan Chen is also good in her supporting role, although the character plays a little too much into convention.
Everything about Dídi fees incredibly 2008, for better or worse. Although a lot of coming-of-age films do tend to get caught up in nostalgia, and there’s definitely a bit of that here — lots of needle drops and throwaway gags are there mostly to get a chuckle out of people who grew up at the same time — Wang does use the era to further the story, like several sequences that use social media (specifically MySpace) better than many movies have in the past.
Of course, there are a good amount of funny moments here, but none of the humor feels especially original. The film mostly tries to get laughs by reminding viewers how incredibly awkward it was to be 13. Yes, it gets the laugh because of how relatable it is, but it is the same type of movie we’ve seen dozens of times before.
There’s no denying that Dídi is an often funny and mostly very charming coming-of-age story. However, in exploring these beats that have been explored so many times before, filmmaker Sean Wang fails to solidify a truly distinctive voice. The one thing that keeps this film ticking, though, is its unabashed authenticity.
Dídi screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.