Somewhere Between is documentarian Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s love letter to her adopted daughter Ruby; the film ends with home videos of Ruby at the beach. Though the film is not specifically about Ruby, she lights up the screen in her brief appearance. “Ruby’s journey will be her own,” intones Ms. Goldstein Knowlton. That’s because Ruby’s journey, unlike her mother’s, will be one of negotiating a new life in the United States following her adoption from China. The director explores this fraught trip through the cognate experiences of four teenage girls.
The film is clearly a labor of love for Ms. Goldstein Knowlton, and her passion for the subject shows in the amount of time she grants her young subjects, Ann, Fang, Haley and Jenna. These girls hail from across the U.S., have different family situations and possess different degrees of interest in their birth families—and often the girls’ experiences are interesting and moving in and of themselves.
However, given the lack of narration on the subject of adoption from more seasoned or knowledgeable voices, the film places viewers too intimately into the lives of these girls. Cruel nicknames like “banana” and “Twinkie” (both, you see, are yellow on the outside but white on the inside) are tossed around casually by the adoptees. It would hardly have squelched the vérité feel of the film to insert some sort of expert speaking, generally, to the experiences and challenges that adopted children from China face in America, as well as reasons for the relative popularity of Chinese adoption. Personal experience is anecdotal, and some of the experiences in this film feel as though they were included not for insight but to pad the running time, as when Ann, on vacation with her family, notes, “I’m happy with my parents,” and paddles off in a kayak. Happy story; inert as drama.
The girls in this film have broadly similar trajectories with incidental differences: all, to some degree, accept that their placement in the U.S. was a fortunate occurrence and resolve any lingering doubts. The most revealing scene in the film may be a conference of adopted girls in London, where British adoptees blithely laugh over the impossibility of finding their birth parents. Given that a couple of the film’s subjects are apathetic about finding their origins, and none of them seem ill-adjusted, what exactly is the story here? One would never call a life uninteresting, but some stories simply lack the dramatic tension to deserve the screen treatment—what is the takeaway from the subject whose journey in the film ends with her deciding to take up yoga to be a little calmer?
And the parts of the film that are traditionally “interesting” feel incredibly invasive, as is the case with Haley, who finds her birth family in China. The scenes leading up to this discovery are poorly directed and uncomfortable—upon returning to her place of origin, Haley is approached by a group of Chinese citizens who speak among themselves in un-subtitled Chinese. She’s immediately told that she resembles a local family, and the next thing we know, Haley is in a shaky, grainy, hand-held camera shot, announcing, “That’s my sister over there—maybe.” Another scene that feels inappropriate is one in which Ann reads an emotional, personal account at a conference in Europe of her anxieties as an adoptee. Both Haley and Ann lack the words to convey their experiences in a manner understandable to outsiders and are left in tears; it doesn’t help that the experiences, along with Fang’s trip to a Chinese orphanage to learn more about herself, are “cinematic” moments in a string of quotidian interviews, such that the narrative grows near-unbelievable. It’s not necessarily too intimate for the cameras to be recording, but the intimacy has to be earned; too often, Somewhere Between teaches the complexity of adoption without granting real understanding of the experience.
Teenagers are not ideal chroniclers of their own lives despite their garrulousness, and these teens are no exception: the subjects speak in circuitous, vaguely uplifting terms about their experiences. We are able to read between the lines as to their challenges without over-explication, but, even leaving aside the lack of expert testimony about the subject of adoption, there ought to be more scenes like the one in a Tennessee beauty shop in which a woman seems perplexed by the fact that Haley’s younger sister, also Chinese, is adopted. (Haley’s mother, for reference, is white.) These, more than the rare trips to China and the international conferences, are the daily experiences that the camera ought to have caught more of—these are the challenges that adoptees from China, and the director’s daughter, will face.
Running Time 94 minutes
Directed By Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Starring Haley, Jenna, Ann and Fang
Two and a half out of four stars