Shot on a miniscule budget with a no-name cast and running a mere 76 minutes, "The Motel" is yet another unpolished indie gem that makes the most of its very limited resources. Marking a promising feature debut for Korean-American writer-director Michael Kang, it's a modest triumph of unflattering realism, proving yet again that a camera, a few good actors, the right material and a sensitive director are all you need to illuminate any particular aspect of humanity.
In this case it's the hormonal cauldron of puberty, embodied here by Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau), a chubby 13-year-old who cleans rooms at the dingy motel run by his stern mother (Jade Wu), an old-school immigrant who senses her boy's advancing maturity with dread and resignation. Sharing cramped quarters with his mom, grandfather and bratty little sister, Ernest yearns for 15-year-old pal Christine (Samantha Futerman) when he's not leafing through porno magazines left behind by sleazy hourly rate patrons.
One of those patrons is Sam (Sung Kang), a downwardly mobile Korean American whose boozy penchant for prostitutes attracts Ernest's curiosity. Their ensuing "friendship" won't last, of course, but Sam's surrogate-father influence is better than nothing for Ernest, who's muddling through a torrent of conflicting urges and emotions.
A Sundance favorite (and like many festival hits, typically overpraised), "The Motel" recalls the physical and emotional setting of "Tender Mercies." But where that far-superior drama involved the spiritual redemption of a world-weary adult, Kang's essentially plotless film accumulates a wealth of quietly observed detail to reveal adolescent rites of passage.
There's nothing new here, but Ernest's life (and the clear suggestion that he'll muddle through like the rest of us) is rendered with admirable honesty and well-earned compassion — never more than in the film's closing moment, which speaks volumes without words about the pain of growing up.
Jeff Shannon: email@example.com