There’s nothing like an election year to enflame the American existential crisis. Pop culture and pop politics would have us believe that derision and division are the dominant order. Reality television trots out an endless supply of characters with names like Hostess snack treats, your Snookis and Honey Boo Boos bound for a millennial kind of fame and fortune. On the other end, the media’s political coverage has ramped up to an hysterical pitch. It all feels a bit like a televised freak show, driven by curiosity and self-loathing. And yet, the curiosity is key: issues of identity are at the core of it. As glad-handing, baby-kissing politicians quickly learn, we are large, we contain multitudes, and we want to be heard. The rather more inspired work is left to documentary filmmakers, who seek out stories that illuminate rather than ridicule. Buck’s cowboy, The Queen of Versailles’s desperate housewife, and Kumare’s false prophet come to mind. To that list I’d add the eloquent young women of the documentary Somewhere Between. Born in China, the film’s four subjects were adopted and raised by American families. Inspired by the adoption of her own Chinese daughter, director Linda Goldstein Knowlton follows these young women as they struggle to reconcile their very American upbringing with their Chinese roots. There’s nothing sensational or headline-grabbing about their stories, but it’s precisely their kind of quiet, dignified, and very real search for meaning that I find interesting in this season of hysteria. Though straightforward in its execution, Somewhere Between is a thoughtful film about one of the many facets of American identity.
In all honesty, the premise of Somewhere Between is perhaps a bit misleading. The film opens with statistics that give some context: as Knowlton portrays it, China instituted its One Child policy in 1979, which led Chinese families to abandon their daughters, and to the subsequent adoption of many of those girls by families around the world (over 80,000 adoptees in the United States alone). But otherwise, Knowlton’s film is very thin on information. She doesn’t examine the circumstances of these adoptions, nor does she take on the historical, political, or ethical considerations at play in this forced migration. Some of the film’s critics seem to want a bit more meat on its bones, but Knowlton’s story is not about the how and why. It’s about a felt experience, about what happens to the girls once they begin to come of age, and about questioning who they are and where they belong. I found this approach refreshingly free of judgment and compassionate in its dedication to the emotional and psychological nuances of the young women’s experiences.
Some of the critical crankiness might stem from the fact that Knowlton has singled out four teenage girls who are, simply put, happy. There’s none of the Threat-Level Orange drama that we have become conditioned to in our “reality” programming. These young women are both self-assured and honest about their vulnerabilities, and are surrounded by supportive and loving families. Knowlton is wise to simply get out of their way, letting their candid interviews shape her film. This is hardly teenage navelgazing: it’s remarkable how these young women are able to speak with clear-eyed poise about what is repeatedly referred to as their “abandonment,” a term that’s as matter-of-fact as it is harsh. When several of the girls travel to London to meet with British adoptees, sharing their abandonment stories forms a sort of bond: they were left on orphanage doorsteps and street corners, some with notes pinned to them, scant information that can prove to be precious in later searches for their biological parents. Some speak Chinese and have traveled there extensively, while others have far less of a connection. Either way, their provenance seems to haunt them.
On the one side we have Fang “Jenni” Lee from Berkeley, California, whose mother is fluent in Mandarin and travels with her to China every year. Fang calls China her homeland but also feels “stuck between two countries” (one of the film’s real weepy moments is when Fang helps facilitate the adoption of a Chinese orphan with cerebral palsy by an American family). Fang’s ability to travel to China and to communicate with people there seems to give her the clearest sense of her roots. Jenna Cook lives in New Hampshire and attends Exeter, and she fits the profile of the incredibly bright, achievement-oriented private school student. But of all the young women in the film, Jenna speaks most plainly about the shame she feels about being a girl because of her abandonment, and she remains troubled by the anxiety that drives her need for achievement. Ann Boccuti from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, is slightly tougher, and the subject with the least connection to China. She seems curious but mystified by it, and a growing friendship with our fourth subject, Haley, pushes her to think further about her own adoption. Haley is from Nashville, and from a very Christian family. When Haley becomes eager to find her birth family her parents are impressively supportive, and remain so even when, through an amazing coincidence, Haley actually does find them. It’s bizarre and fascinating to watch the reunion of a thoroughly Southern, Christian beauty queen with her village-dwelling, agrarian Chinese family. Though she knows she is lucky to have found her Chinese family, Haley struggles with these new, strange relationships. As she puts it, “I wouldn’t want to make either of my Moms feel unwanted.”
My complaint about Somewhere Between is that I wish I knew more about the young women’s families. Interestingly enough, most of them have other adopted Chinese sisters, though we don’t hear much from them. Jenna is the daughter of a lesbian couple. Haley’s Mom’s car bears an “adoption not abortion” bumper sticker. But we only get a glimpse of these backstories. To its finish, Somewhere Between remains dedicated to Fang, Jenna, Ann, and Haley, a simple portrait of four interesting lives in flux.