Featherweight Comedy Miguel Wants to Fight Is All Talk

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Featherweight Comedy Miguel Wants to Fight Is All Talk

For so many men, high school is spent posturing. Who has the deepest musical knowledge? Who has the most expensive clothes? Who can make the dirtiest joke? Who remembers the most obscure athletes? Who could fight what animal? Who can care the least? These performances are the foundational dick-measuring texts of stereotypically shallow male friendships, those of King of the Hill’s beer-sipping neighbors saying “yep” to each other day after day. Miguel Wants to Fight, a Hulu comedy as gracelessly straightforward as its title, understands the pressure to pose. Its teen friend group blusters and shoots bull, riffs on anime and jacking off, and, at the drop of a hat, gets into scuffles. There’s not much movie to its guileless, repetitive simplicity—and not much comedy to that “not much movie”—but it evokes an adolescent understanding that image is everything.

To that end, Miguel Wants to Fight pushes a specific, reference-forward vision of high school. Its kids, whose bedrooms sport wall-to-wall posters of Bruce Lee or basketball, munch Takis as they bum around their neighborhood. They hang out around the TV while someone gets their ass kicked by Sekiro. They make fan films of themselves doing Naruto moves. They really love talking about cranking it. David (Christian Vunipola), Cass (Imani Lewis) and Srini (Suraj Partha) are recognizable high school doofuses who think they’re way badder than they are. Miguel (Tyler Dean Flores) only stands out through his pacifism. 

But Miguel is not a conscientious objector, or disloyal, or a coward, or particularly self-aware. It’s just shaken out that he’s never really gotten involved when his friends throw down. He’s a victim of circumstance, which isn’t an especially compelling character trait—though you get the impression that the rowdy Cass and Srini would pressure him into bloodying his knuckles regardless of his motives. It’s a miracle he hasn’t gotten into a scrape simply through proximity: Theirs is a world of boxing murals and basketball court scuffles; hell, Miguel’s dad (Raúl Castillo) works at a boxing gym. Fighting is everywhere. That pressure, combined with a classic high school boogeyman—the looming move out of town—gives Miguel an ultimatum: It’s now or never to put on a final, violent show for his friends.

Finding a suitable combatant and then successfully goading them (the friends’ only rule of engagement is that Miguel can’t throw the first punch) forms his quest’s loose sitcom structure. Opponents are considered, don’t work out, and we move on. Writers Shea Serrano and Jason Concepcion (who went from hosting a movie podcast together at The Ringer to writing together on Serrano’s Freevee show Primo) take the sheen off this Nickelodeon plot by stripping it of any real point aside from “high schoolers are numbskulls” and letting their characters swear like real, paint-peeling high schoolers. 

Director Oz Rodriguez (who, aside from a slew of comedy TV, made the charming Vampires vs. the Bronx for Netflix) adds his ability with young actors, establishing an easy rapport between a cast mostly trafficking in punched-up jokes delivered when characters are off-screen. Partha benefits most from this—he sells the fast-talking Srini’s underwhelming patter with energetic dedication—though Flores is also winning as a classic squirrely little guy squeaking out some desperate teen angst. Lewis and Vunipola don’t have much material to stand out on their own (David is the studious voice of reason, implied to be so because his boxer dad is dead; Cass is a girl), though they make the scenes where the group sits around killing time with Apatow riffing feel complete, if not engaging.

As Miguel runs through his list of unlikely foes—pretty boys who bullied him for popping a boner during class (allowing for a high school version of the Anchorman joke “It’s the pleats!”) or for having fake Jordans or for being Not White—the ridiculously overblown affect of a soft-spoken high schooler trying to fistfight is finally translated on-screen. Rodriguez envisions Miguel’s imagined battles as different stylistic pastiches, swiped from the movies Miguel likes. A Bruce Lee showdown boasts a brassy score and tinny sound design while The Matrix-inspired duel lights the superhuman jumps flying through its gymnasium in cold green. It’s cute, with the best of the bunch being an animated One Punch Man section—no martial arts movies or Edgar Wright-like flourishes can overcome how resonant anime is with high school’s over-the-top emotions. It helps that Miguel Wants to Fight, like so much anime, is filled with flashbacks and rehashes to stretch it out to feature-length.

Miguel Wants to Fight is barely 70 minutes, desperately hanging onto its sparring partners before being saved by the credits’ bell. There is so little in the script aside from the zingers and pop culture riffs leading to and forming its series of imagined confrontations that, when the movie decides it’d like us to care about Miguel’s relationship with his dad, or David, or himself, it’s a series of groggy swings and misses. There’s no emotional foundation here, no perspective. There is no lesson about friendship, loyalty, or the falsehoods behind the veneer of macho toughness. This isn’t a “meet me after school” special. It’s half an episode of something, allowed to run wild.

Miguel is sometimes reminded that his journey is misguided—that he might be a bad, selfish guy even if he’s not drawing first blood—but these moments are churned through and buried, like any good high school boy does with negative thoughts. And if Miguel Wants to Fight stuck to its silly guns, purely being a series of parodic riffs about the media that teens (and the movie’s writers) think is awesome, it could’ve been a breezy little nothing without an ounce of introspection. But aside from the jokes that actually work (a textbook’s instructions warp, pre-battle into variations of “Fuck him up, Miguel”), the tone staggers from corner to corner. A bloody, brutal dream-fight fake-out interrupts otherwise bright and cartoony nonsense. An edited-for-social-media aesthetic, with face filters and drawn-on effects, disappears when it’s time for a heart-to-heart with dad, or a teacher, or a neighbor who just got out of jail. Miguel Wants to Fight could never have been a contender, but these scenes feel like throwing the bout, just because these kinds of movies are supposed to have moments like this.

Miguel Wants to Fight is a flyweight comedy with the misfortune of coming out the same year as the similarly style-forward, action-spoofing teen reckoning Polite Society. Even if it wasn’t clearly outclassed by a recent peer, Miguel Wants to Fight is never more than its references—though its cast can charm and its details feel real, its most specific observation is one of superficiality, and that’s all it can offer. Like the high schoolers that will watch it, Miguel Wants to Fight and its characters love Jackie Chan and John Wick and talking shit. But it spends so much energy being relatable that it never considers being enjoyable.

Director: Oz Rodriguez
Writer: Jason Concepcion, Shea Serrano
Starring: Tyler Dean Flores, Christian Vunipola, Imani Lewis, Suraj Partha, Raúl Castillo, Dascha Polanco, Andrea Navedo
Release Date: August 16, 2023 (Hulu)

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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