Being a teenager is tough. Your body is changing, your hormones are raging, and no one really seems to understand you. As much flack as adults tend to give the younger generation, they don’t actually have it easy. Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) starts sleeping with Liam Samson (William Magnuson) as her life begins to fall apart at home during her parents’ divorce. One problem, Liam has a girlfriend, and he doesn’t seem to be too keen on letting her know he’s hooking up with Angie on the side. Mei Makino examines a teenager’s sexual awakening and her struggles living as a mixed-race girl in Texas through Inbetween Girl.
I can admit, a movie like Inbetween Girl is the definition of my form of catnip. If you’ve read any of my reviews before, you know that I love a good coming-of-age story. Nothing makes me more hyped than bildungsroman and Inbetween Girl has that in excess. Angie is struggling not only because she’s at the age where we all struggle, but because her parents are getting a divorce. Her mother, Veronica (Liz Waters), works all of the time, leaving the already lonely Angie at home eating bagel bites and in an empty house. Her father, Fai (KaiChow Low), has moved into an apartment and quickly gets a new girlfriend, Min (ShanShan Jin), who also has a teenage daughter of her own named Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui).
As a biracial person, Angie often has to straddle the line between two identities. Not only is she “inbetween” in the sense that she’s at this impressionable age and caught between her parents, but she’s both white and Chinese. When her Chinese father gets a new Chinese girlfriend who is cooking Chinese food, redecorating his apartment full of Double Happiness posters, and speaking Mandarin regularly, Angie is immediately excluded. She recognizes that the Chinese side of her father is a side that she is not really a part of. Add to that the fact that Fang is the stereotypical Asian teenager. She speaks Mandarin, she is into robotics, she’s got a freaking scholarship to Stanford. Min almost immediately starts comparing the two girls with one another and in Angie’s mind, she comes up short.
It’s not really easy to feel sympathy for her parents, who both seem to want to neglect their daughter, one for work and one for a new family. I’m not sure if I fully believe that Angie should forgive them by the end of the film, knowing the extent of her loneliness and suffering during the time. Especially when it comes to her dad, who seems to have moved on in a matter of weeks after the divorce. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.
Anyway, on top of this, Angie has recently begun regularly hooking up with Liam, the most popular guy in school who also happens to be her friend and also happens to be super not available. Liam is dating Shelby (Emily Garrett), an Insta-famous teenager with a Karen Momanager. Seriously, the first time this woman meets Angie she starts calling Angie “oriental,” saying Chinese babies look like panda bears, touching her hair, and repeatedly asking that question all of us Asians dread: “Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” actually means “What kind of Asian are you, not where were you born or where do you live?”
Despite discovering the joys of having sex, Angie is insecure about her relationship with Liam. He refuses to break up with Shelby. Liam might say that he’s in love with Angie, but is he really? Anyone watching the movie can see the red flags Liam puts up almost immediately. Angie might be blinded by his good looks (and I’ll admit that even I was for a period) but Liam is the exact kind of guy every person should run from.
He never says it outright, but it’s obvious that who he dates matters to him optically. He doesn’t acknowledge Angie at school, preferring to crawl into her room through her window in the dead of night. He’s content having his blonde, conventionally-pretty, Instagram model girlfriend at school and Angie at night. It’s also clear that because Shelby is very religious, she wants to abstain from sex until marriage and that’s the main reason Liam first pops up at her window.
As the situation develops and Angie gets paired with Shelby for a class project, things complicate. Shelby isn’t the vapid mean girl she had the potential to be. Instead, she’s warm, funny, kind, and open-hearted. She and Angie have the same sense of humor, they bond over their individual struggles. Galbraith and Garrett have great on-screen chemistry together and their dialogue is honest and natural.
But, when the truth outs, everything hits the fan. Angie is forced to come to terms with the mistakes she’s made but she also confronts both of her parents with their shortcomings. Again, I think her dad is probably coming out more as the worst parent for basically replacing his daughter (I saw that froyo scene, Fai, that was not cool). Throughout the film, Angie has been collecting snippets of her life for a time capsule for her future self, and as the events of this time come to a conclusion, not everything has full closure, just like in real life. Angie’s relationship with both Liam and Shelby is totally altered. But she came out the other side of it and there’s still so much more life to live.
A lot of praise should be given not only to Makino as the director and writer of the film but also to Galbraith herself as the lead actress. She carries her character with strength and also fragility. Angie is a tough girl, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a young girl beneath the tough shell. So often I wanted to just reach through the screen and give Angie a hug or tell her to stay away from Liam (no matter how good the sex is or how much chemistry Galbraith and Magnuson have). Galbraith has so much potential, with her expressive face and the ability to embody the many facets of this complicated character.
So, does Inbetween Girl tread a well-trodden path when it comes to teen dramas? Of course, it does. But it also lays out a place for itself with its compelling lead and a personal story. The way that Makino addresses race and the struggle of being an outsider marries perfectly together in this youthful and absorbing film.
This film review was based on the premiere at SXSW 2021.