‘Somewhere Between” opens with a familiar scene: We’re in a hotel room in China, where a baby is meeting her adoptive parents for the first time. The baby is crying; her new mother is, too. They’re about to go on a remarkable journey together. But we’re not going with them.
Instead, the mother, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, explains that she’s made this film as a gift to the baby, whom she names Ruby. Knowlton’s idea involves documenting the lives of four teenagers who also came from China to live in the United States. To help Ruby face a future built on an incomplete past, Knowlton says, she has to “meet the girls who have already walked in her shoes.”
So, that’s where we’re headed. To meet Fang “Jenni” Lee who’s about to turn 15 in Berkeley, Calif., and Jenna Cook (also 15) in Newburyport, and Ann Boccuti (14) in Lansdale, Pa., and Haley Butler (13) in Nashville. Their stories will offer a small window on the lives of some 80,000 Chinese adoptees now living in the United States. If you don’t expect more than that from this movie you’ll be impressed, and likely moved to tears, by its star quartet of delightful, articulate, remarkably regular teens. If you come looking for a broad understanding of international adoption and the policies of China or any other country, however, you’ll still have to hit the Internet when you get home.
I prefer to appreciate “Somewhere Between” for what it is (important filmmaking), rather than bemoan what it isn’t (great filmmaking). Knowlton has landed on four stories that deserve to be told, and she’s told them in a straightforward way that gets the job done, with obvious dedication and love. Fang, who seems much older than 15 (and could well be, given the often imprecise assignment of foundlings’ ages), poignantly recalls her birth mother’s gray braid and the poor, rural village she lived in before being abandoned and adopted at 5. She visits China regularly now, to lend support to its orphanages and to see if anyone can pinpoint her own ethnic heritage.
Jenna attends Phillips Exeter Academy and struggles with perfectionism that she thinks springs from being cast off at such an early age. Ann marches in her high school’s color guard — a “reject sport” for people who “don’t fit in,” she says. She’s not so interested in unearthing her Chinese roots. At least, not yet.
Then there’s Haley. She’s a violinist and singer who hopes one day to make history on the Grand Ole Opry stage. In the meantime, she decides to go looking for her birth parents in China. What she finds is a part of her past that she never expected would be so easy to reclaim. These scenes are extraordinary. If you don’t weep, you should be checked to see if you’re a stone Buddha.
All the girls in this film speak candidly. Sometimes their words sound like poetry. Sometimes their words are poetry. And sometimes they’re reminders that adoption isn’t always neat and pretty, as when adoptees talk about where they were “dumped” or how they endure the “stupid stuff” that people sometimes say. One girl jovially embraces the label of banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), and another says with a nervous smile that she’s maybe more like a scrambled egg. United Adoptees International founder Hilbrand Westra, a vocal critic of transracial adoptions, also makes a brief appearance.
At one point, Fang casually admits that she’s confused about her identity and feels as much like a foreigner in America as she does in China. Neither here nor there in terms of belonging, she’s “a child stuck between two countries.” She says this without self-pity or blame or even resignation. She seems to know already that, whether or not she ever finds her exact place in the world, she’s more than capable of making a mark. The great gift that Knowlton has given to her daughter, and all others like her, is proof that she’s far from alone.
The director and stars of the film will make several appearances at the Kendall Square Cinema to answer questions. On Friday Knowlton will attend the 4:25 p.m. screening. She will be joined by several of the film’s subjects at that evening’s 7 p.m. show, and on Saturday for shows at 1:30, 4:25, 7, and 9:35 p.m.