Most period pieces try to recreate a time and place for exactly how it was. Or at least, exactly how the creators remember it when a work is semi-autobiographical. But sometimes, a special movie tries to imagine its history just a little differently than perhaps the collective consciousness may have experienced it. An imagined history like Dìdi by Sean Wang is one of my favorite kinds of movies because it jars you with just how accurately crude it was being 14 in 2008 but with just a tiny bit of a rewrite.
Chris Wang (Izaac Wang) is just like every other boy he knows. He’s obsessed with seeking attention, convinced he knows everything, desperately trying to seem cool for older kids and girls, and interminably mean to his mother. But he’s also compassionate and capable of critically reflecting on the influences around him and changing his behavior accordingly. The accuracy of the language the kids use, the Facebook typos, and the casual homophobia is uncanny and frankly, upsetting. Whenever the movie shows a Google search or a YouTube video, it feels like you’re transported back to not only the place and time but the exact person you were in that moment. Being just about the same age Chris was in 2008 when the movie takes place, every single aspect of his life down to the Are You Nervous Game could not possibly have rung more true.
So when an older boy tells Chris to be nicer to his mom (Joan Chen) in a way that late 2000s irony never would have made possible in real life, you’re so locked into the version of the past you remember yourself that it’s as if something like that really could have happened. Moreover, maybe a few moments of self-reflection could have changed your relationship with your older sister or your mother at 14 too?
That’s the incredible and impressive power of Dìdi. It ever so slightly imagines a different reality than we could imagine on our own. But it’s also only possible because Wang and Chen play their roles so excellently. Wang is wound tight and so clearly in need of a treadmill and a hug at the same time. He has boundless energy with nowhere to put it half the time, but he also feels deeply. When his friends get him into a situation with a girl in their class that starts fun but quickly turns awkward, Chris is quickly and sweetly attuned to what’s wrong and wishes he could do something about it. He just doesn’t have the language, and even if he did, being a 9th-grade boy would certainly defeat him first.
The quiet power of Chen’s performance as Chris’s mom seals the whole deal, though. Every moment where she struggles to give her children exactly what they need to thrive is crushing. And made even more so by the scenes she shares with her own mother (Chang Li Hua). They make clear the origin of her discontent and drive to be a good parent. They also offer Chris the rare opportunity to continue seeing his mother as a person, not just worthy of his innate love but also his respect. Some of their final words exchanged together elevate the entire movie.
Dìdi belongs to a rare category of movies I call “Movies That Make Me Want To Be A Parent.” As I’ve become older and spent longer working with kids professionally, the parents of coming-of-age movies have become more and more fascinating to me. Often, parents are depicted as annoying or naive. Even when they’re trying their best, we can’t help but wish they’d stop. Dìdi offers the precious opportunity to watch a mother struggle but still come out as the hero. Rather than being irritated by her shortcomings, they’re inspiring. She makes it feel like you don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent. And, she helps illustrate some of the ways that perhaps a modern parent can do things a little differently.
Dìdi is an excellent coming-of-age period piece. The way it places you firmly in 2008 is uncanny, but the way it tells that history just slightly differently than how it probably was is perfect. We all deserve to be able to look at difficult times in our lives with fondness while imagining how it could have been just a little better. It’s creative, it’s healing, and in Dìdi’s case, very well acted as well.
Dìdi screened as a part of Sundance 2024.
Dìdi is an excellent coming-of-age period piece. The way it places you firmly in 2008 is uncanny, but the way it tells that history just slightly differently than how it probably was is perfect.