LAFF 2011 Review: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN
Director: Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Adopting a child from China wasn’t easy to begin with, but even after little Ruby came home, producer and director Linda Goldstein Knowlton was daunted by the task of helping her daughter grow up secure with her own identity, an identity that seemed destined to exist in divisions. The introduction of China’s One-Child Policy in 1979 meant that there was a surplus of children (many of them unwanted girls) in the country, and Americans seeking to adopt found a new option for expanding their families. But despite many happy families forming out of the policy, many of the girls struggled to figure out just where they fit, in their birth families and their adoptive families, and in their birth country and their adoptive country.
Goldstein Knowlton focuses SOMEWHERE BETWEEN on both the personal and family lives of four girls adopted into the U.S. by four distinct families. All of the subjects have different origin stories and feelings about where they’ve come from and what that means for their personal identity. Jenna compensates for her abandonment issues and for feeling unworthy as a girl by putting her all into school and her crew team. Haley comes from a Christian family and is very much into performing music and competing in beauty pageants. Ann is settled in a proto-typical “American” life with little interest in learning more about China and her roots. Fang was abandoned on a street corner at age five and channels her fears of abandonment into art and helping other Chinese orphans.
After getting to know each of the girls for a bit (SOMEWHERE BETWEEN clicks through their lives in a neat cycle for the first half of the film), we plunge more deeply into their lives and some of the huge changes and upheavals they each are facing. It is as the film progresses that it goes from being simply informational and moves towards real emotion. There are moments that feel truly wrenching – such as the moment Haley thinks she’s found her birth family on a trip to China – but the film doesn’t go for cheap gut checks.
The girls all grapple with the normal issues that accompany teenagehood, in addition to the nagging sense that they are somehow “foreign.” It’s rare that adoptees are able to find out about their pasts, so even when the girls make the difficult decision to search for their birth families, it’s often a fruitless search. Watching the girls work through these issues is often confusing and sad and conflicting for the audience – and it approximates the experiences our subjects are going through.
The most moving scene of the film involves Fang’s side story - her work with another orphan, tiny Run-Yi. After meeting her in a village, Fang and her family raised enough money for Run-Yi, who suffers from cerebral palsy, to get her the physical therapy she needs. Ultimately, Fang is present for the first in-person meeting of Run-Yi and her new adoptive parents in a nondescript hotel room in China. The wonderful scene with Run-Yi, Fang, and the new family mirrors the beginning and ending of SOMEWHERE BETWEEN, as Goldstein Knowlton and her husband gather up their baby Ruby in their arms for the first time.
This is the strength of SOMEWHERE BETWEEN – intense human drama captured on film in a sensitive and unobtrusive way. Despite admittedly making the film for personal reasons, Goldstein Knowlton approaches her film and her subjects with a reserved objectivity. The girls, their families, and their upbringings are all very different, and it would be easy to place value judgments and implicate people for some of the results that seem most touching to watch, but Goldstein Knowlton never oversteps that line.
Technically, it’s not an exceedingly accomplished or polished film – Goldstein Knowlton tries some tricks with colorization and timing to create a sense of clouded memory when the girls return to China, and the film’s timeline is a bit muddled – but it’s still a fine documentary in terms of telling some deeply human stories about some very special young women.
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