Movie Review: "Somewhere Between," A Film On International Adoption

I had the pleasure of seeing the documentary ""Somewhere Between" last night at an art-house theater on the West Side, followed by a question-and-answer session with the director.

We did it right — Katrina and I went with three other adoptive couples with young girls from China, and prepared with a raucous discussion of inappropriate topics at a nearby Japanese-tapas place. The beauty of dinner at a Japanese restaurant is that you can drink gigantic bottles of beer and deep-fried things without social condemnation. We arrived in a very upbeat frame of mind.

We left sober (literally and figuratively) and contemplative. "Somewhere Between" is simultaneously touching, inspiring, and painful for adoptive parents. The film — directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, herself an adoptive parent of a young girl from China — doesn't pull punches. The film focuses on four teenaged adoptees and their thoughts and experiences. Knowlton was fortunate to pick four very articulate and thoughtful teens willing to expose painful truths. The result is neither an anti-adoption film nor a pro-adoption apologia; it's a film that is comfortable with the lack of easy answers to hard questions. One teen struggles to define herself both in America and in China and wonders whether she will ever feel she belongs in either place. Another teen, finding what the director called the "needle in the haystack," succeeded in finding her birth family, only to find that the discovery and the new relationship with that family involved mixed feelings and emotions. A teen adoptee, visiting China, forms an attachment with a beautiful orphan girl with cerebral palsy, and is instrumental in connecting her with an American family equipped to care for her and wanting to adopt her, only to witness that taking the girl from all she has ever known is still heart-rending. Adoptive parents are portrayed honestly as well-meaning but imperfect — an adoptive mother's brutal question to her daughter's birth mother is filmed unstintingly. (One of the biggest laughs, and truest representations of pluralistic American culture, comes when an Anglo adoptive mother explains how she learned Mandarin to interact with her daughters, and the camera cuts to the Chinese-American father saying he can't follow because he doesn't speak Mandarin.)

This isn't a movie to persuade you that international adoption is a good thing if you think it isn't, or vice versa. It is a movie to make you grasp with the fact that it's a complex subject and that different adoptees have different experiences, and are treated differently by their birth and adoptive cultures. The self-awareness and resilience of the teens amazed me. The simultaneously joyful and painful scenes of first meetings with adoptive children remain stirring for me and remind me of our own first meeting with Elaina.

I highly recommend it to adoptive parents and people interested in the subject. It's going to be in very limited release, followed by a DVD early in 2013.

[Note — more recent Popehat readers may not know that I've written a lot about international adoption and being an adoptive parent; you can find the posts collected here.]

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  1. nlp says

    Thank you. My brother and his wife adopted two children from India, and the reaction of the two children (now in their thirties) has been wildly different in terms of their reaction to and interaction with white society as a whole. I'll pass along the information about the movie.

  2. says

    I'm always amazed at the things people object to. In what bizarre parallel universe is a child having a loving home with adequate resources ever a bad thing? I speak not of the adoptees, of course – everyone has their issues, and no one's pain is inconsequential or should be shrugged off.

    I'm biased in that international adoption is pretty much the only way I've considered having children. (I'm sure I couldn't pass the psych screenings without lying.)

  3. Doug says

    my son is from China, and he knows full well he is adopted. he has asked the "why" question already and we have given him enough information to satisfy him for now. But in a few years…

  4. CourtneyLee says

    Thanks for the link to your blog about Elaina–I love reading stories of the ways families form. Just a curiosity–what are some of the thoughtful, sensitive, kind things people have said to you and/or other families who have adopted internationally?

  5. Pete says

    As very happy adoptee (though not international) in the late 1960's, my own experience leads me to believe that modern society over thinks the whole "adoptee adjustment issues" thing in the same way that modern society also seems to breed helicopter parents. I understand that a racially mixed family will have some challenges that single race families don't, but I think these difficulties can be easily overcome by love, care and devotion

  6. Pete says

    As very happy adoptee (though not international) in the late 1960's, my own experience leads me to believe that modern society overthinks the whole "adoptee adjustment issues" thing in the same way that modern society also seems to breed helicopter parents. I understand that a racially mixed family will have some challenges that single race families don't, but I suspect these difficulties would be overwhelmingly conquered by the love and, care and devotion

  7. Pete says

    As very happy adoptee (though not international) in the late 1960's, my own experience leads me to believe that modern society overthinks the whole "adoptee adjustment issues" thing in the same way that modern society also seems to breed helicopter parents. I understand that a racially mixed family will have some challenges that single race families don't, but I also suspect these difficulties would be overwhelmed by the love and care of devoted parents.

  8. says

    Yes, though in the context of explaining why birth-family searches are difficult, and in the context of interacting with the teens.

  9. Old Geezer says

    Since I first started reading your adoption posts I have had great difficulty getting my head around the concept of international adoption simply because of what we went through when we adopted our son. We went through the Los Angeles County Adoption Agency in the mid-1960s. At that time not only was there no consideration given to a mixed race adoption, they were very careful to be sure that the child they placed with you had skin color, hair color and biological parental size and shape characteristics that matched the adoptive parents. My wife was blond. I was red-headed. There was no consideration of a baby for us that was brown- or black-haired. We are both tall. They would not consider a child from short parents. Their rationale for this was that "someone might figure out that your child is adopted before you want him to know it."

    It is good to see that people can relax and accept that adoption is natural and international adoption can be just as natural.

  10. Orphic says

    In reply to M, I'll just articulate the "other" perspective: Adoption skeptics/reformers would probably point out that yes, adoption is obviously better than the alternative universe where the child die or grows up horribly deprived. But their perspective is that the ideal would be for the child to grow up in an alternative universe where the necessity for adoption were not present to begin with, and that should be the object of adoption reform. Most children "given up" for adoption are given up in circumstances that could be easily rectified with greater financial resources. So that, they feel, is a tragedy.

    I was in a relationship with a woman who was trans-culturally adopted. Her feelings towards the subject were… complicated. She loved her parents, but she still felt like her adoption was a sort of a tragedy, and couldn't help but fantasize about what sort of life she would have led had her birth parents (who she had met) not been forced to give her up due to financial hardship. Those birth parents later raised children of their own, so she had tangible peers to compare her life with. The trans-cultural aspect of the adoption made things even more complicated, of course, because the language barrier made communication with her birth family pretty awkward. It was actually very personally eye-opening to realize how much I, raised by first-generation immigrants, took my (minimal) fluency in Chinese for granted (like most immigrant kids I thought Chinese was useless). But she would break into tears whenever she had to ask me to step in and translate something for her.

    So yeah, there's the other side of the coin. I've come around to her way of thinking. Which is not to say that adoption is entirely, negative, period. Just that it's pretty ruthlessly zero-sum (one set of parents loses a child in order for one set of parents to gain a child), and it's zero-sum in a way that pretty starkly lays bare some pretty brutal economic and social inequities.

  11. says

    In learning about adoption, we've encountered adoptees who view it positively and adoptees who view it negatively and adoptees in between. I think adoptive parents need not beat their breasts and rend their clothes and decide that adoption is bad, but should be open to other experiences and perspectives.

  12. Orphic says

    @Ken I think that's fair. And it's worth mentioning that from what I could tell, the vast majority of those adoptees that ended up skeptical of the institution (M moved in fairly adoption-skeptical circles) loved their parents very much. One didn't have anything to do with the other.

  13. AlphaCentauri says

    If you interview children raised by their biological parents, you're going to get a lot of ambivalent feelings about their upbringing — they just don't have adoption as a factor to consider when they try to figure out why they are or are not happy with the way they were raised. Adoptive parents are also screened in ways that other people are not, so there are less obvious problems to lay blame on.

    Not being genetically related to your kids does add a challenge. When we look at our children's foibles, we can see a lot of ourselves in them. It makes them easier to understand and allows us to help our kids learn to cope with them using strategies we learned ourselves.

  14. says

    Orphic: Yes, that would be ideal. I tend to deal in the perhaps overly pragmatic "If you can't have ideal, something is better than nothing," though. I'm not saying people shouldn't talk about it, especially the adoptees and adoptive parents (and perhaps biological parents) who have to deal with the issues firsthand; I just take a dim view of ivory tower condemnation, on some kind of politically correct "principle," of giving children born into grim situations a chance at a much better life.

    My half-sister was (domestically, in-state) adopted when our mother became pregnant at 18; by the time she found the family my mother had been dead for about seven years, and it really seemed to hurt her. She's now headed down the same path of abusive relationships, drug addiction, and unmedicated bipolar as our mother. I feel so sad for her.