Fang "Jenni" Lee, 14, visits China to learn more about her background… (Linda Goldstein Knowlton )
"Somewhere Between" is an apt description of where the subjects of this moving new documentary find themselves: Chinese girls emotionally divided between the Asian country in which they were born and the America in which they were raised.
Since China implemented its one-child policy in 1979, 175,000 children, mostly girls, have been placed in adopted homes in 26 countries. About 80,000 ended up in the United States, and it was the notion of director Linda Goldstein Knowlton to spend three years following the lives of four of these now-teenage young women.
Knowlton, who previously co-directed the excellent "The World According to Sesame Street," had a personal reason for doing this project. She and her husband had just adopted an infant Chinese girl, and she wanted to have a sense of what her daughter will have in store as she gets older.
Given that, it's not surprising that "Somewhere Between" is not a position paper on the pros and cons of adoption. Though a few moments are spent with Hilbrand Westra of United Adoptees International, who has problems with transracial adoptions, the film focuses instead on the personal journeys of its subjects.
Initially, this proves to be not totally successful. Though meeting the girls' parents and seeing home movies of their early days is important for establishing context, a little of this goes a long way.
The girls themselves, ages 13 through 15, however, are a different matter. It's not just that the participants turn out to be poised, articulate and candid. Their position between cultures — some of them are the only Chinese person in the cities they live in — has made them more than usually thoughtful and self-aware.
Something else the girls have in common, though the intensity varies from person to person, is an interest in knowing more about their birth families. This is a fraught area because of how distraught and prone to self-doubt they are, having been abandoned for gender reasons. As their experiences deepen over time, and as some of them travel back to China, the film's ability to affect us increases.
Perhaps the most interesting of them is 14-year old Fang "Jenni" Lee, who lives in Berkeley. Adopted at 5, she speaks Mandarin but says, "In either country I know I'm a foreigner."
Trying to find out which Chinese ethnic group she belongs to, Fang is glimpsed trying on clothing from the Dai people, and visiting villages looking for individuals who resemble her. We also see Fang taking a humanitarian interest in Run Yi, a small girl with cerebral palsy she spies in an orphanage.
Jenna Cook, age 15, is a classic high achiever, a student at top-flight Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and coxswain of the junior varsity crew, which she is careful to point out is a position for someone who "stands alone."
Jenna goes to Europe under the auspices of Global Girls, a group that joins together Chinese adoptees, and an experience she has in Barcelona with a group of Spanish adoptive parents has more of an effect on her than anyone could have anticipated.
Though each of these girls very much has her own experience to relate, no situation seems more unexpected than that of Haley Butler, who lives in Nashville. She's introduced playing a mean version of "Orange Blossom Special" on the fiddle and says one of her life goals is to be the first Chinese performer on the Grand Ole Opry.
Adopted by a deeply Christian family and considering herself "a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside," Haley is inspired by her own Global Girls experience to get proactive about seeking out her birth family, even though the odds seem astronomical. What she discovers is potent enough, as is much of "Somewhere Between," that you'd have to be a stone not to be moved.