Like a teenager struggling to stick out and fit in at the same time, Michael Kang makes his feature debut with "The Motel," a well-worn coming-of-age tale enlivened by pungent detail and a sharp visual sense.
Ernest Chin (Jeffrey Chyau) is a tubby, awkward 13-year-old Chinese American who cleans rooms at his mother's suburban no-tell motel. He's also a budding writer who's just won "honorary mention" in a short-story contest, but his unforgiving mother, Ahma (Jade Wu), is not impressed. Honorable mention, she says, "is worse than losing." Although it's inevitable that Ahma's stern facade will crack, Kang, adapting Ed Lin's novel "Waylaid," lays the sentiment on sparingly.
Abandoned by his father, Ernest finds a substitute in Sam Kim (Sung Kang), a self-assured Korean American who squires an endless succession of prostitutes past Ernest's awestruck eyes. But Sam isn't much of a father figure: He pays his bill with a canceled credit card, puts Ernest behind the wheel when he's too drunk to drive and dispenses advice on the order of "Don't ever let anyone tell you porn is bad."
Sam's cocksure posturing is thrilling to Ernest, whose post-tryst cleanups have done little to prepare him for the onset of puberty, as his painful flirtation with a pretty older girl (Samantha Futerman) makes abundantly clear. But even Ernest sees through Sam's act after a visit to the self-styled playboy's former house, where Sam's estranged wife has already started rearranging the furniture.