Fans of comics wunderkind Adrian Tomine may have rested easy upon seeing the film adaptation of his 2007 graphic novel Shortcomings this past summer. In the slice-of-life dramedy, Ben Tanaka spends his days managing a struggling Berkeley art house cinema and his nights watching discs from his Criterion collection. When his girlfriend, Miko Hayashi, moves to New York City, Ben is thrust back into the dating world, where he is free to pursue the blonde white women who are his type. But awkwardness ensues, and when he retreats to New York to lick his wounds, he is disturbed to discover Miko in a relationship with a white man.
That the film managed to get financed at all shows that Hollywood has evolved in the 16 years it took to jump from page to screen. Ben Tanaka being Asian American is central to the story. But the industry insiders Tomine initially shared his screenplay with didn’t agree. “They wouldn’t come out and explicitly say what they meant,” he told Creative Screenwriting, “but they would say, ‘We think that the way you’ve written it, is not very castable, and we’d like you to consider rewriting it in a way that we’d have a broader range of options in terms of casting.’”
In the years since, he watched as not only 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians made it big, but also The Farewell, Always Be My Maybe, Minari, Shang-Chi … “I thought, ‘OK, the doors are really opening up now. We’ve had our Marvel superhero and we’ve had our huge budget rom-com,’” Tomine said. Still, “ none of them were quite hitting the same kind of tone or the same sort of style that I had in mind with my story.”
It’s what drove Tomine to publish Shortcomings in the first place. “I think 10 years ago, 15 years ago, my impression was there were so few opportunities for Asian Americans to get a film made or a book published, or to be on a stage, that if you’re going to do it, it’s gotta be profound,” he told Vanity Fair. “It’s gotta be solemn. It’s gotta be heart-wrenching. It’s gotta be giving thanks to all your elders and expressing hope for the future and all these massive things. And I felt like we weren’t given the room to be funny, to be jerks, to be messy—to be normal.”