Make sure you have plenty of tissues on hand while watching “Somewhere Between” because, without a doubt, you are going to cry. Filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton has a knack for extracting some soul-moving confessions from the young subjects of her documentary about transracial adoption.
The adoptive mother of a Chinese daughter, Knowlton worried about her own child’s future and went in search of some older girls who were among the first adoptees from China. Over a five-year period, she filmed their dreams and their disappointments, their ability to adjust and their inability to get over feeling “somewhere between” Chinese and American.
Because of China’s burgeoning population, a one-child-per-family policy was strictly imposed by the government. And because girls are seen as children who will eventually marry and leave home, parents favor sons who are obligated to take care of their elderly parents. Thus, some 80,000 mostly female babies from China have been adopted in the United States since 1989.
The four girls Knowlton chooses to follow have the obvious in common yet each is unique with her own set of problems. The most vibrant among them is Fang, aka Jenni Lee. Articulate, confident and outspoken, she was raised in Berkeley, speaks Mandarin fluently and visits China regularly—where she wanders among minority ethnic groups looking for her tribe and asking if she looks like one of them. Yet Fang didn’t start out so self-assured. Adopted at five after her biological older brother left her in the streets with the promise of returning, she grapples with issues of abandonment. After spotting a young orphan with cerebral palsy, Fang makes it her personal mission to see that the girl is taught to walk and eventually adopted. “The Girl in Pink” as she’s called has such a sunny disposition that her face glows with pure happiness until it’s time to say “good-bye” to Fang and “hello” to her new adoptive parents. Then, a real tearjerker of a scene ensues.
Adoptee Haley Butler is a southerner with traditional values. Growing up in a religious Christian family in Nashville, Tenn., she plays fiddle and yearns to be the first Chinese performer in the Grand Ole Opry. She also enters beauty pageants in hopes of following in her older adoptive sister’s footsteps. Her future, it seems, is set. But on one of her trips to China, Haley puts up posters and learns that someone knows her birth family. After DNA testing, Haley is reunited with her birth parents in a particularly poignant moment. As she patiently sits and has her hand held, her hair stroked and her cheeks patted, Hayley’s impassive face betrays none of her emotions while her birth father, who wasn’t told she’d been given away, can’t stop dabbing at his eyes filled with regretful tears.
Like the other adoptees, New Haven, Conn. resident Jenna Cook is driven to prove her worthiness. And she really pushes it—playing guitar, being the coxswain of a rowing crew, playing ice hockey and excelling academically. Admitting her competitiveness, she is determined to be the perfect daughter so that no one will ever abandon her again. An adoptee activist, Jenna ends up volunteering at the orphanage from where she was adopted. Currently a student at Yale, she’s also the founder of “Adopted Yalies” as well as “The Teen Program,” a subset of “Chinese Adopted Siblings Program for Youth.
While Ann Boccuti jokes about being “the only Chinese in the white town” of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, she seems satisfied with her life until she attends a conference. At the “Chinese Adoptee Links/Global Girls,” she learns about others like herself and has a meltdown. Chatting about their experiences, the adoptees share secrets in a gesture of release and tears flow like a mighty river.
The four China-born adoptees filmed by Knowlton had their lives enriched by Caucasian parents who provided them with quality educations, material niceties and love. Yet, the girls have also struggled with identity.
As more than one of the interviewees acknowledges, “I’m a banana—yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” it’s clear that although they’re “somewhere between,” these young ladies have survived.
Sniff. Pass the tissues, please.
“Somewhere Between” plays at the Landmark Varsity from Oct.19-25. Producer Pat Verducci conducts Q&A opening weekend.