Film Review: Somewhere Between

Exceptionally well-made and emotionally riveting documentary about an impressive group of Chinese-born teens and their American adoptive parents. A celebration of the very best in human nature and a trove of delightful, thrilling and even suspenseful m

That Somewhere Between won the Hot Docs Festival Audience Award signals there’s something quite wonderful here—and there is. Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton (The World According to Sesame Street), who also produced the critically acclaimed art-house entry Whale Rider and Lasse Hallström’s The Shipping News, films what she knows: Her inspiration for Somewhere Between arose from her adoption years ago in China of seven-year-old daughter Ruby.

Goldstein Knowlton’s focus is on a quartet of contemporary Chinese teens who were brought very young into very different but loving American homes at the height of Chinese adoptions from 1989 through the ’90s, when so many baby girls in China were left homeless. Their availability, we painfully learn, arose from China’s 1979 One Child Policy. As boys were more valued than girls, especially for physical labor like that required on family farms, female babies were abandoned, whether left on streets or in orphanages.

The four teens—all wise beyond their years but clearly well-adjusted, typical American youngsters—understand that they are different. As Haley, one of the girls, puts it, she is a “banana,” yellow on the outside but white on the inside. Although all are assimilated, they grapple as teens with the question of “Who am I?” The degrees to which they want to know about their biological parents and their native country differ, just as do their notions of being “somewhere between” American and Chinese.

Crosscutting back and forth over three years and always building, the doc, while not neglecting to show the profound decency and love of the adoptive parents, follows these teens at their schools where they excel both academically and socially, on trips to China in search of family and cultural roots or to Europe, where they meet other Chinese adoptees. Whether seen with boyfriends or their families and friends or pursuing charity work helping special-needs orphans in China, these clear-headed, high-achieving adoptees impress and inspire.

All adapted with ease to being American. But just as adolescence brings new complexities to all lives, it causes the four girls to understand their apartness, question their identities, and confront their abandonment (a word they don’t like) as babies in a harsher light.

Haley grows up in Nashville, Tennessee, in a deeply Christian home. At 13, she’s a firm believer not just in religion but in her goal to perform with the Grand Ole Opry. Exuding a special glow, self-confidence and a sharp sense of humor, she is the epitome of a well-adjusted teen. But adolescence has also brought her an awareness of “otherness,” which sends her on trips to China and on one incredible journey to find her birth parents. The search begins in the tiny village where Haley, as a baby, had been abandoned on a sidewalk.

Fifteen-year-old Jenna has been raised in a Massachusetts home with two mommies. She attends the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy where, in a leadership role, she is coxswain on a crew team. She’s also an accomplished figure-skater. She’s artistically gifted, versatile, bright and surely destined for the Ivy League, but her confrontation with her own abandonment changes her life.

Ann grows up in suburban Philadelphia. All’s quiet on this quintessential American home-front until she travels abroad to meet other Chinese adoptees who are part of the CAL/Global Girls organization. For the first time, Ann confronts issues of roots, family, and race which will turn her teen complacency into a whole new experience.

Fourteen-year-old, artistically gifted Fang, growing up in Berkeley, California, was, at age five, adopted late and has memories of her brother leaving her on a street corner (in fact, her age is only an estimation). Another trauma hits in her new life when her adoptive parents divorce. Fluent in Mandarin, she travels to China where she discovers an adorable and preternaturally good-natured little girl with cerebral palsy in need of a family. Determined to find her a home, Fang has a new mission.

Compelling elements of suspense and other high drama thread their way through Somewhere Between, such as the search for Haley’s biological parents and Fang’s determination to find the special-needs orphan a home.

Just as these four teens brought so much joy to so many, Somewhere Between is sure to bring tears to the eyes of viewers. It’s not only that the kids are all right, but maybe this country is too.