In 2002's gutting Daughter From Danang, a pair of well-intentioned documentarians watch as their noble plan—film a young orphan, raised in the U.S., as she’s reunited with the Vietnamese family forced to abandon her—turns into a shitshow. The daughter, overly-coddled by a Western upbringing, acts Ugly American, the family uncomfortably demand financial aid, and the filmmakers try against odds not to get involved. Even with multiple subjects, no such fireworks occur in Somewhere Between, a look at children separated from their families due to China’s one-child policy. Not all doc subjects, alas, result in first-rate drama, but there’s no excuse for a film that favors easy emotion over a deeper examination of a potentially thorny issue.
Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton (The World According to Sesame Street, also producer of The Shipping News and Mumford) knows her topic: Her film begins with she and her husband adopting their very own Chinese baby. Attention wisely shifts from her to her stars, a quartet of teenage girls who are, as one puts it, “Chinese on the outside and white on the inside.” Despite being more or less comfortably ingrained into their various American societies and deeply embedded within their loving foster families, the need to know their parents and their home culture is an itch that can’t be abated. And while some rack up annual Chinese visits, locating birth parents proves a Herculean headache: Records are scant, if they exist at all, and none of the teens can even be absolutely sure of their birthdate. (Agencies often alter ages to make their wares seem younger and therefore more desirable.)
Attempts at snooping, and in some cases reconciliation, alas, take a backseat to heartstring tugs. Knowlton asks questions solely to acquire soundbites to synch to the twinkly score, leading to inquiries that rarely delve deeper than the superficial. Even without Daughter From Danang-level drama, there’s a lot of untilled depth and unasked questions, giving us only a sense of how these girls deal with a culture in which they’ve been raised but were not born, how they cope with being perceived as an “other” in prickly high school life, and how each family operates with at least one member being an unnatural addition. Somewhere Between touches on all these, but touches only.