Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s doc examines the dual worlds of Chinese adoptees
In the opening scene of Somewhere Between, an American couple waits to see their child for the first time. They are visibly anxious, and hardly less so once the child is placed—wailing—in the mother’s arms. That mother, who turns out to be the film’s director, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, is not to be confused with the child’s biological mother. This sort of clunky distinction figures prominently in the documentary, which follows several girls adopted from China as they navigate the mixed waters of their identities.
From there we go to Berkeley, California, to a backyard party where white teenagers sing for what they are calling Fang/Jenni Lee’s fifteenth birthday. Lee suspects she’s actually older, as she was abandoned (her word) on the street and knows that Chinese orphanages often choose dates that skew young for marketing purposes.
Haley Butler was also displaced on account of China’s One-child policy, though she acquires a slightly firmer sense of roots once she travels from Nashville back to Anhui Province at 13. While there, she finds her birth parents mere hours after hanging a poster in the village square. What follows is a heart-wrenching reunion made bearable by a translator, a home-cooked meal, and the promise of future visits.
The other girls in the movie are also searching, if not quite as deliberately, for knowledge of their pasts. They exhibit a great degree of the self-doubt typical of teenagers, but also maturity beyond their years. Though they wish their family situations were simpler, they’re quick to form sisterly bonds with other adoptees. Watching them talk might leave you uneasy (“I only know where I was dumped”), though one suspects girls who travel abroad to attend Chinese Adoptee Links (CAL) conferences and agreed to be filmed for years are likely on the more conflicted—or at least self-aware—side of the spectrum.
Goldstein Knowlton seems rather conflicted herself. “She will have so many questions that I won’t be able to answer,” she says of her adopted daughter, Ruby, to whom the film is dedicated. And indeed, it’s more a meandering preview of the angst to come than the work of a skilled storyteller with strong opinions on the topic at hand. One of the most dynamic parts of the film is when activist Hilbrand Westra speaks briefly against international adoption. The girls at the table with Westra are moved by his words, but it’s impossible to know whether their tears are born of like-mindedness, indignation, or some combination thereof. Whatever the cause, they’re a reminder that through struggles and triumphs, girls like Lee and Butler will always live somewhere in between.