PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: Sean Wang attends the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Dìdi (弟弟)” premiere at The Ray Theatre. (Photo by Robin Marshall/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Annie Lyons
Filmmaker Sean Wang can’t help but reflect on his own teenage years as he stands at the January 19 premiere of his feature directorial debut Dìdi (弟弟). “I wish my adolescent self was kinder to myself. I wish I wasn’t such a brat to my sister and my family. I really think of this movie as a thank-you-and-I’m-sorry-and-I-love-you to my family and my friends,” he shares to an exuberant crowd at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah.
That might sound like a tall order, but all those emotions come through beautifully in the heartfelt coming-of-age tale, screening as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Supported by the Sundance Ignite x Adobe Fellowship, Sundance Institute | The Asian American Foundation Fellowship, and the Institute’s Directors and Screenwriters Labs, the film embraces a childlike playfulness and doesn’t shy away from the cringey, messy aspects of youth.
“Dìdi” means little brother in Mandarin but as Wang notes, Chinese parents will also use the term as an endearment for their younger sons. It’s an expression that 13-year-old Chris Wang (played by a memorable Izaac Wang, unrelated to the writer-director) hears frequently at home. Set in the Bay Area in 2008, Dìdi (弟弟) follows the Taiwanese American teenager during the summer before he starts high school. Chris — or Wang Wang, as his friends call him — would rather spend his time making skateboarding videos with his friends than get along with his mother (Joan Chen) and college-bound sister (Shirley Chen), much to his grandmother Nai Nai’s (Chang Li Hua) dismay.
The film is highly personal for the writer-director; in fact, his own grandmother even plays Nai Nai. “It’s not directly autobiographical, but it was really about how shame manifests itself in a young Asian American boy’s life, especially during that era,” Wang explains. “This movie was started as, ‘What if you took Stand By Me but had it star people like me and my friends?’ And then each step of the way was just making it more and more and more specific.”
The early social media landscape adds texture, from the omnipresence of AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace to the prank-filled YouTube videos on Chris’ channel. But aside from the internet, actor Izaac Wang sees more similarities than differences between his real experience as a teenager in 2024 compared to his character’s in 2008. “Yeah, I had to pretend that, oh my gosh, I’m using a flip phone now. How do I use this thing? I have to press the button three times to get to ‘L,’” he says to the laughing crowd. “Other than that, acting-wise, you just gotta be insecure and vulnerable, and I think that every teenager these days is.
“I think it’s like this generational thing where the older you get, you’re like, oh my god, the younger generation is so much more different than us. But if you really think about it a little bit, we’re all kind of the same — at least when we’re teenagers, I’m just assuming here! I’m immature, those two over there are immature, and we’re all stupid together,” he says, gesturing to fellow cast members Aaron Chang and Raul Dial, who play Chris’ best friends.
Just as Dìdi (弟弟) helped the writer-director reconsider his younger self with more empathy, filming the movie also helped the young actor feel more comfortable in his own skin. “During this movie, I had a lot of ups and downs, especially with figuring out how to be vulnerable with myself. That’s something I’ve been struggling with for a little bit. Big thanks to my mom. Without her, I think I’d be crying in my room right now,” Izaac Wang says, a sentiment that receives an outpour of appreciation from the crowd.
“If we’re talking about boyhood in an honest way, it’s not always clean. It’s not always perfect. Especially during that time period, it’s not always correct,” Sean Wang shares. “The hope is that you look at this movie with 2024 eyes. When [a character] says stuff like, ‘Oh, you’re cute, for an Asian,’ I’ve had people say that to me. When I was 13, I was like, ‘Yeaaaah!’ and in my 20s, I looked back and I was like, ‘Eughhh, that’s kind of fucked up.’ But I think that’s what this movie tries to do. It tries to look back at that time period without judgment and allow ourselves to look back in an honest way and be like, ‘Oh yeah, we had to learn from that.’”
To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival, click here.