Angie, a mixed-race Asian girl, looks thoughtfully at herself in the mirror wearing a purple tank top with her hair in a bun
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Learning to Speak Your Own Name in Mei Makino’s INBETWEEN GIRL

TACLA
taclanese

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by Hannah Polinski

This essay is published as part of the Youth Critics Initiative III, a collaborative mentorship incubator between the 25th Reel Asian Film Festival and TACLA.

In an interview for Reel Asian, INBETWEEN GIRL director Mei Makino says that teen girls are usually taught to prioritize the wrong things. In her first feature film, the American writer and director explores how learning to advocate for your own needs can be painful, with many emotional casualties taken on the way. INBETWEEN GIRL is an effectively-layered bildungsroman that captures the many dramas that emerge in the life of 16-year-old Angie Chen, as she learns to navigate her sexuality, parental divorce, and shifting friendships after entering into a secret relationship with the most popular boy in school, whose own girlfriend is “too Catholic”.

Angie is portrayed by newcomer Emma Galbraith, who brings a charismatic depth to her moody character. She was also 16 when cast for the role, taking on the double task of navigating her own self, while playing a teenager figuring herself out. INBETWEEN GIRL follows a girl learning to prioritize the right things in her life as she considers the role she wants to take as a friend, lover, daughter, and Chinese-American while doodling her way through Episcopalian high school in Galveston, Texas.

Angie and Sheryl, Liam’s blond girlfriend, take a Polaroid selfie together making silly faces
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

What exactly are young girls typically taught to prioritize? If we look at other films within the coming-of-age suburban teen rom-com genre, it’s that getting with your high school’s heartthrob is not only possible but an ultimate goal of teenagerhood. Romance is placed on a pedestal, with friendship and familial support being either a means of reaching it or an accessory that brings us comfort in the absence of romantic love.

It’s easy to draw parallels between INBETWEEN GIRL, which first premiered in 2021 at SXSW, to Netflix’s TO ALL THE BOYS I LOVED BEFORE. Both films feature biracial white-Asian girls who strike up unexpected romances with the most popular white boy in school. Whereas TO ALL THE BOYS’ Lara Jean allows her proximity to Peter Kavinsky to take over her life and the film plot, INBETWEEN GIRL’s Angie writes her own narrative in a way that encompasses all aspects of her life, from her anxiety over her parents’ divorce, navigation of friendship ethics, carving out space as a Chinese-American, and being the “other woman”.

Conscious of the space it occupies in the coming-of-age genre, INBETWEEN GIRL is a very self-aware film that directly addresses the faults that we come to expect from teenage girls in similar movies. It’s aware of how fairytale-like romance can seem at that age, and bursts its pink-toned bubble with realistic portrayals of teen sexuality. Notably, the movie chooses to show a black screen instead of the moment in which Angie and Liam lose their virginity to one another. Coming from a culture that’s obsessed with watching children have sex on screen, giving these two awkward teens their own moment of privacy is a subversive act.

Angie and Liam sit in a dreamy teen bedroom illuminated by fairy lights
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Makino makes her very protagonist subversive to the teen rom-com genre by utilizing an experimental multi-media film format that gives Angie the agency to explore her feelings as she desires. Angie is the narrator of the film, offering her point of view through a video-journal time capsule of her time as a teen. Her illustrations, collages, and pixelated video journals take over the screen to effectively weave through these “in-between” spaces in which a young woman learns to navigate her sense of self; a welcome empowerment of a character who is typically not given much power in cinema.

Teen girls are not taught to prioritize the right things in film because mainstream romantic narratives do not prioritize teen girls, from 80’s coming-of-age classics like SIXTEEN CANDLES up to Netflix’s TO ALL THE BOYS. In romantic comedies, women’s perspectives are often taken up as the receiving end for jokes and pity, where the rationale behind cringe comedy is justified as typical behaviour for women in love. Notably, this heavily gendered storytelling form never takes a masculine perspective, shutting down the possibility for exploration of a vulnerable male interiority.

In the same bedroom, Angie has a moment of contemplation while the sunlight shines in
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Historically, female art and emotion have not been taken seriously. Women have made journalistic art documenting their subjective experiences for centuries, which only began to be taken seriously in the west during the mid-20th century feminist art movement, timed with the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. This period saw the publication of books like The Diary of Anaïs Nin and movies like Agnès Varda’s CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 that introduced a radical sort of feminine interiority to the mainstream, uncompromising in their assertion of emotion and vulnerability.

By politicizing the intimacy of Angie sharing her thoughts through art, Makino gives her protagonist a sense of power over her fractured relationships. Art — whether her drawings or video journals — is Angie’s way of reclaiming her own power in the face of the chaos around her, keeping her from feeling helpless in the wake of her parents’ separation and a romantic relationship spiralling out of her control.

Angie is confronted in her bedroom by her mother after school
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

The women of INBETWEEN GIRL attempt to get a grip on their lives by making little adjustments to navigate the transitional spaces they shift through. Early in the film, Angie returns home to her mother changing the locks on the front door after her ex-husband moves out, telling her daughter, “When you’re older, you’ll understand that this needs to feel like my domain.” Watching this movie as an adult, I do understand her need to create a physical space in which she can put up a block from the exterior world. Like all teenagers, Angie might not appreciate it at the time, but her mother is giving her a good example of what it looks like for a woman to prioritize the right things.

Angie and Phuong walk along the boardwalk to the sea
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

While a teenage audience would surely enjoy INBETWEEN GIRL, the film’s narrative speaks more to an adult audience, functioning as reflective therapy rather than a cautionary tale. Makino’s lens and story pacing move with the maturity of an adult reflecting upon their own adolescence, creating intimacy with its young characters, but keeping a distance from their drama at the same time.

The film shines brightest in its direct handling of romantic fallout, something that a less self-aware film may have fumbled. After Angie ends things with her gaslighting love interest Liam, Makino doesn’t steer her to seek comfort in family and friends. Instead, Makino gives Angie space to process everything that happened, reflecting upon what didn’t feel good and why. We realize that getting the guy shouldn’t be Angie’s goal, but rather being comfortable with herself despite the absence of love, both romantic and platonic.

As an adult, I can see through Liam’s manipulative behaviour with a clarity I don’t think I would have had as a teenager. I’m screaming internally for Angie to recognize his red flags and walk the other way, but can keep in mind how excited and flattered I would have been in her position. We watch the normally calm and cool Angie run around with Liam, high off the thrill of affection from a body that is presented as the pinnacle of attractiveness. Desire is socially constructed, and Angie’s crush is not immune to the fact that Liam embodies America’s most desirable teen traits as a confident, athletic white boy.

Angie looks expectantly towards Liam as they sit in his car
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Personal experiences aside, we know that Liam isn’t good for Angie because of the reflective lens through which the film presents itself. Lines like Liam’s “I think we should just be friends” drip with a self-awareness that almost feels like a parody of a boy only interested in sex. We don’t believe him for one minute, an intentional move by Makino to force us to reflect upon the ubiquity of such a theme.

However, Angie is a smart girl. Perhaps I’m not giving her enough credit to see through the boy’s manipulation in the same way that my younger self fell for it every time. Angie decidedly ends their relationship by telling Liam’s girlfriend the truth, seeing the ways in which he is playing both of them. Coming-of-age stories are timeless because they allow us to reflect upon our own growth in a low-risk environment, providing us with the raw honesty to question whether or not we made the right decisions to get us to who we are today.

There’s a sort of endearment that comes from looking back at a time when everything felt like life or death. Teen shows offer us a chance to relive the highs and lows of adolescence, cheering as girls like Angie get it right, when we, in her position, may have gone wrong. Viewing a movie like INBETWEEN GIRL as part of a film festival is a welcome shift from the heavy-handed content we’ve come to expect in such a setting, particularly from a festival with a focus on diasporic content, which typically skews towards intergenerational trauma and sociopolitical drama.

Angie has sticky rice and tea with her father while sitting between his new Chinese girlfriend and her daughter, Phuong
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Unlike many films that feature biracial characters, INBETWEEN GIRL doesn’t allow diasporic anxieties over race and cultural communication to drive the narrative forward. We feel Angie’s discomfort as her looks are called exotic, and her frustration as she is compared to her Mandarin-speaking potential step-sister Phuong, but that isn’t the focal point of the film.

The message is not how to reconcile Chineseness against whiteness, but rather how to make sense of both of them while in the midst of so many other aspects of life that are just as meaningful, and sometimes more impactful, than cultural identity. Angie isn’t concerned with fitting in, but rather how to make sense of the fact that she doesn’t have a clearly outlined place in the world yet, whether that’s as a friend, daughter, girlfriend, or artist. The titular “inbetween girl” is representative of any teen girl, except with the intersection of racial identity to deepen the nuance of what it means to grow up a third-culture kid outside of a diverse metropolis.

Hands unfold the lotus leaf that surrounds sticky rice
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Makino is crafting this story out of the Asian diaspora, but her exploration of teenage girlhood goes beyond racial identity. At first glance, the title and plot summary nearly convinced me otherwise; INBETWEEN GIRL seems like it’d be your cookie cutter diasporic narrative of a Wasian teen who can’t fit in, too Chinese for the white kids and too white for the Chinese kids, dating a white boy of course because Wasian girls always are. I was pleasantly surprised by the new depth that Makino takes this familiar narrative, defamiliarizing the very notion of a Chinese diasporic tale.

Angie and her father embrace in the twilight of Angie’s treehouse
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

By choosing to focus on navigating love, friendship, and family instead of race, INBETWEEN GIRL is one of the best diasporic films as of late. While Angie’s character was not originally written as Asian until Galbraith came across her radar, Makino’s identity as mixed-race Asian herself and bringing an Asian character to the screen leaves us no choice but to read this as a diaspora film. INBETWEEN GIRL distinguishes itself from other diasporic works in that it doesn’t rely on surface-level cultural markers like using chopsticks in the American school cafeteria, bubble tea, or a parent cutting fruit as a jumping-off point to explore its protagonist’s inner world. With no unifying cultural pull to bring together a pan-Asian experience, these common diasporic tropes have their purpose but are often relied upon too heavily to make a point. Instead, Makino crafts a world where her Chinese-American protagonist doesn’t have to choose between cultures, occupying a comfortable space where she doesn’t even feel the need to explain herself, accepting her culture and biracial identity as a matter-of-fact part of life.

Angie inserts a tape marked TIME CAPSULE into her handheld video camera
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

By the end of the film, Angie learns to prioritize herself and her own values while minimizing the amount of hurt she causes others along the way. Casualties may arise, whether it’s the loss of a friend, family dynamic, or old flame, but it’s important to learn how to forgive oneself and those around you, as everyone is dealing with layered issues at any given time. She learns to embrace all aspects of her life without placing higher importance on romance and external validation, choosing to instead validate her own feelings and subjective experiences through art.

Angie could go on to make diaspora art in university, with all the typical staples of Wasianness. Since she has already shown consciousness of the nuance in between, I have faith that whatever she makes will add new depth to classic tropes much like INBETWEEN GIRL has. Makino has ignited a heartfelt reckoning with the ways in which we raise teen girls, and I am nothing but excited for what she and fictional future Angie create next.

A watercolour self-portrait of Angie in the same look from the beginning, in a purple tank top with her hair in a bun looking away thoughtfully
Film Still from INBETWEEN GIRL (2021), Mei Makino

Hannah Polinski is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker from Southern Ontario. Approaching her subjects through the passage of time, her work explores familial memory, shifting landscapes, and the surreal. She can be found at her nearest bakery, or less commonly at hannahpolinski.com.
Hannah’s IG @pineapplefarming

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TACLA
taclanese

a commons run by a coalescing of Asian diasporic people.