Like I said in my review of Definition, Please, when it comes to Asian American stories, they are almost always about family. And, like I said before, that can be tiring. I’m exhausted by the amount of emotional baggage I constantly have to be reminded of. At this point, it’s a bit of a trope. I get that for many Asian American creatives, it’s a story we want to tell, one that feels important to us. And in the case of some films, there is a unique authenticity to that one story that makes it stand out.
The Girl Who Left Home doesn’t really have that.
On the brink of Broadway stardom, Christine Santos is sucked back into her hometown after the death of her father. She left town on a sour note and has been estranged from basically everyone ever since. If there is one bright star in this film, it’s Haven Everly’s voice, as Christine she is naturally the character in this musical dramedy that bursts into song the most and despite my initial judgments of the film, Everly’s voice kept me interested. Returning home, we meet her childhood friends and close family members. But it also means that she has to pick up the pieces at home with her mother, Mary, now that her husband is dead. Emy Coligado’s performance as Mary is impressive and her scenes with Everly are another gift.
The big mystery unfolding is the reason why Christine left. As the viewer, we are the only ones who don’t know what’s going on as we relive the traumatic event that led to her leaving home, but we know it had something to do with her ex and her father and a potentially dangerous accident that happened in their family restaurant.
As a child of an Asian American family, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t witness corporal punishment in some form as a child. It was relatively common in households when I was growing up, especially among immigrant families. The old “they’re from a different generation” chestnut. But having witnessed some physical and serious emotional and mental abuse coming out from my community and seeing how unproductive and damaging it can be, it’s hard for me to find much sympathy for Christine’s father in this story, or even her mother.
There is a moment in the film, when, confronted by an incredibly triggering person, Christine has a total breakdown. This is after she has sacrificed the potential of stardom, of her career totally taking off, of finally making a stable paycheck. She finds out her friends and family have been lying to her about something that is basically at the epicenter of her trauma.
At this point in the film, I didn’t really think anything other than Christine shouldn’t be around these people who guilt her, shame her, emotionally blackmail her, and bring her to literal panic attacks. Maybe she shouldn’t be around these people who don’t take her career seriously, continuously undercut her achievements, lie to her, and tell her what they think is good for them. “We sacrificed everything for you,” is brought up, which only adds salt to the wound, a phrase commonly used as emotional blackmail on kids by Asian parents. We sacrificed everything for you, so we must know what is best.
Perhaps we’re supposed to have sympathy and love for Christine’s parents once we know the truth of their support for their daughter, but that kind of support also desires obedience and control. When we learn why Christine’s father flew into a rage on the day of the estrangement, it makes this perfectly evident. This is a man who demands control, unblinking respect, and loyalty, and if he doesn’t get it you won’t like him when he’s angry.
There’s a seriously toxic message beneath all of this. Are we to infer from the ending that after all of that, look how happy Christine is! Look how successful she is! Look how her ultimate obedience won the day! Because the conflict of her family’s restaurant are the manacles that shackle Christine to her home. Does she enjoy cooking? Yes, it seems like it. Is it her passion? No, obviously not. And cooking is a tie to her family, which means there are complicated feelings there.
The film feels like it’s actually written by an Asian parent because it has all the finger-wagging-I-told-you-so gusto of a parent. It’s hard to separate the very real negative feelings I have about an Asian parent’s version of discipline. I found myself irrationally furious at some of these characters and hoping that there would be a just desserts-type ending. Perhaps where Christine does lose her role, the restaurant succeeds but now she is trapped there, forever known as the washed-out star who was almost famous. Because that’s what easily could have actually happened.
Continuously throughout the film, Christine is forced to choose between returning back to LA and starting rehearsals or staying at home to help with the restaurant. Those types of choices typically have repercussions! But there are none for her. The ending is a very “have your cake and eat it too” ending. And worse, the film doesn’t really address the pain and horror that Christine has had to carry. The loss of her father is the impetus for the story but is it ever truly examined? By the end of the film, I can’t tell if she’s actually forgiven him or is simply in an early stage of grief.
Perhaps if it had shed the layer of it being a musical, there would have been time to delve deeper into the subject. Or if it had more fully leaned into the genre, we might have gotten more singing solos that showed introspection. As it stands, it’s not hard to imagine an Asian parent watching this movie with their child and saying, “See! If you listen to us, you’ll eventually get to achieve your dreams and our family can succeed!” How often is that even true?
Obviously, I’m carrying a lot of baggage into this film, but it’s hard to ignore the glaring issues with the plot. The lack of nuance and dependence on a happy ending is generic. There is very little actual comedy in this to justify its dramedy definition. When it comes to performances, really only Coligado shines. Everly’s voice is beautiful, but ironically, like her character, she seems better suited for the stage as she tends to overact at more dramatic moments. With average music and middling performances, The Girl Who Left Home takes a confusing stance on a triggering story and feels like a fairytale written by finger-wagging parents.
This film review is based on a screening from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Visual Communications.