For what often feels like an obligatory “Where Are They Now?” DVD extra, Somewhere Between, a documentary on four Chinese adoptees living in different parts of the United States, is surprisingly affecting. And though the adopted parents’ motivations and the adopted siblings’ feelings aren’t disclosed, the film survives its skirted chance to be many-sided through the profundity afforded by the vulnerability and maturity of these teenage girls, who show us what it’s like to be “Chinese on the outside and white on the inside,” as more than one them puts it, through numerous scenes that radiate with raw, complex emotions triggered by topics of race, identity, and belonging rarely acknowledged head-on in the movies. Some of the most remarkable of these scenes are those featuring the one-in-a-million reunion between Haley Butler, who grew up in Nashville, and her biological family from Maanshan in east China’s Anhui Province; the mercurial micro-expressions glimpsed on their faces as they see each other after a 13-year absence are heart-wrenching.
Part of why there’s no examination (save for a brief comment by Haley’s mother about spreading Christianity, which Haley is now a believer in) on why white American women want to adopt Chinese babies is because director Linda Goldstein Knowlton is herself one of these women (we see her and her husband in the opening scene adopting their daughter in China). In Pietra Brettkelly’s The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, it’s made obvious that balls-out Vanessa Beecroft’s privileged status is partly responsible for making the prospect of adopting Sudanese babies seem as appealing as owning anything the masses can’t get their hands on. In Somewhere Between, the mothers are more genuine, as they don’t treat babies like colorful art objects, but the film would have been more interesting if Knowlton exhibited just a pinch of the Brettkelly doc’s frankness and had briefly probed the mothers, who, though they have provided the girls plenty of love and opportunities in life, are partly responsible for their schizophrenic identity issues.
Most articulate about the cobweb of feelings regarding her identity is Fang, who lives in Berkeley and is turning 15, but, as she explains, because adoption agencies tend to alter adoptees’ ages to make them seem as young as possible, feels that she may be much older than that. Fang manages to talk facts about her life, and through an inflection or an aside, hints at, and sometimes openly discusses, what her true feelings are about those cold truths. And just as Fang, with an admirably open heart, acts as a facilitator between a young, abandoned girl in China who has cerebral palsy and the American family who’s adopting her, she, more than any other girl, is able to put us in the shoes of an adoptee, expressing the pain, longing, and gratefulness that comes with it. If Somewhere Between had dropped its bookending scenes that refocus the attention on Knowlton and her daughter and instead filled in the gaps that leave us wondering about the girls’ adopted families, the film could have been stronger and more well-rounded. As it is, the girls are all that’s carrying this film, but that’s still a lot.