Judy Lei is a young filmmaker based out of New York City, and her debut work serves more than one purpose. The World’s Greatest is a powerful story about a Chinese-American family struggling with life. I find the title has two meanings:
Call it Fresh Prince of Bel Air or something else, but I firmly believe this film cautiously and intimately examines that relationship between parent and teen (played by Lei). There’s also getting to understand the mindset in the lead and what she wants to do to achieve that dream. These two ideas combined makes for a compelling tale. I found it’s a very personal and relatable piece.
While she and her brother Ken (Leonard Wu) are tight, not everyone will have additional relatives around to help. These two can talk to each other. But for mom (Vanessa Kai), she’s from another world. This movie brings a lot of familiar problems that even I know about–especially concerning trying to understand their elders. Be it a parent or grandparent (like in Everything, Everywhere All At Once), to accept what a young individual wants is tough. This generation growing up in America have a lot more privileges ready for them to challenge, if they so choose. When compared to what the elders faced back home (China was changing for them), it’s difficult to understand what they faced. Quite often, they put that weight on their children to bear, and hope they can learn how to rise up and do whats right.
In Judy’s case, that’s in her desire in where to go after high school, and establishing a future she can be happy with.
Those parents who fled the old country for another also have other baggage. It’s tough to tell if they are happy, and I’m glad to see this subplot as part of The World’s Greatest.
To see this film set in New York City isn’t because Lei lives there. It’s often regarded as a land of opportunity–especially back in the early part of the 20th century–for many immigrants. This storyteller’s opening narrative establishes the tone before moving into the tale about a teenager losing hope. This fictional Judy has very few friends, and whom she connects with aren’t always going to be good for her well-being.
As for whether her mom can help, it’s tough to say. Despite how abrasive she may sound in a terrific performance by Vanessa Kai, just what they mean is something else. Any Chinese viewer who have parents who behave like this character will recognise it instantly.
Ultimately, The World’s Greatest is about communication. Lei crafted a well-meaning slice of life tale. This teenager has plans. All she wants to do is honour her family. Despite a father who lives back in Hong Kong and isn’t all that keen on coming home (there’s a plot detail which I won’t spoil), she and Ken worry about their mom. Perhaps we all can learn a little from this film and realize that much like Spider-Man, it’s not about being far from home to realise that feeling of belonging is where the heart is. There’s no way at home or anywhere else for people to forget that.
4 Stars out of 5