The American Dream is an ageless wonder for families all across the world. Taking the leap, starting anew, and growing something that multiple generations of your family can enjoy and flourish on. That's something writer/director Lee Isaac Chung knows a lot about: a Korean kid who grew up on a farm in Arkansas.
In "Minari," the critically-acclaimed award contender that finally hits St. Louis theaters today (on demand on Feb. 26), the adorable and charismatic David (Alan S. Kim) is the embodiment of a young Chung: the son of Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), a young couple trying to create something in a country that hasn't exactly been profitable to their livelihood. Along with cinema's best grandmother (the sure-fire Best Supporting Actress winner in April, Yuh-jung Youn) and an eccentric yet resourceful neighbor (a great Will Patton), Chung takes us on a journey that doesn't shy away from the hopeful rigors of farming, being that new family in town, and also making a marriage work under new conditions.
The best thing about this film, outside of Youn and Yeun's strong work, is the elegant score from Emile Mosseri. It hits you first in the opening credits slowly but surely, setting you up for a film that is functionally understated and takes its time in laying its dramatic hooks into you. With David's heart condition making the trip from California to Arkansas a bold endeavor, Jacob and Monica start to chew through their marriage vows over the course of the two-hour running time. Instead of placing predictable beats and stops for the couple, Chung allows the family dynamic to run on the uncomfortable side at times.
What we do get is earnestly sweet interactions between the energetic David and the fiery Soonja, who couldn't be farther from each other in age yet cling together as the family climbs over one hurdle only to find more challenges in their new life. Soonja is a big wrestling and mountain dew fan, coming over as a presumed caretaker of the little guy, but instead develops a deep bond with David, as well as Anne (Noel Cho), the daughter who sees more of the turmoil between her parents than anyone.
Yeun's performance endears itself to the movie. Jacob is the relentless dream pursuer, and the actor doesn't try to do too much, but wisely doesn't force us to fall in love with his patriarch. There are moments where Jacob's tunnel vision involves more crop than family stability, making it harder for the audience to see his true goal. How a new challenge can become a dangerous addiction, one that pulls your eyes away from the important things.
But that's the sign of a confident director-someone who cares more about authentic characters, especially true to Chung's own childhood, than merely entertaining an audience. This is his story, told his way, and it resonates in the end.
While I didn't find myself floored by "Minari" as the credits rolled, I knew a few things right away that I will tell you now as I close out this review. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would save some air time by handing the Oscar to Youn right now, who gives the best performance in the film, including a late scene that doesn't even have words.
Trust me on the score. Download and listen this weekend. It's beautiful and can recapture the film's finest moments instantly. That's what great scores can do for a film, empowering its message and making it punch a little harder. "Minari" will only get better with each viewing. Sometimes, films need to marinate for a while, but other times they just need another spin in your head. Oh, one last thing: Patton hasn't been this good since "Remember The Titans." Full stop.
Bottom Line: It's true. This didn't make my top ten list of 2020, but we are talking about an extremely great year in film. One that offered something for everybody. While I won't bestow all the Academy's highest honors upon it, everyone should see Chung's heartfelt ode to the American Dream, something that can seem endless and limitless at the same time.