Written by Anna Harrison
Coming of age stories are a dime a dozen. Good coming of age stories are far rarer, but Inbetween Girl adds a very solid addition to their ranks, standing out among its peers by deftly handling conversations of sex and race as seen through the lens of a mixed race teenage girl. Teenagedom is such a tricky time both to navigate in real life and to portray on screen—too often filmmakers go overboard, making the teenagers into walking bags of hormones and relying on overused tropes to create eye roll worthy caricatures. Inbetween Girl writer and director Mei Makino successfully avoids these pitfalls, crafting instead an immensely relatable film with a lot of heart that feels like an authentic portrait of high school drama.
The film follows Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith), an art-minded teen who, amidst her parents’ messy divorce, finds herself drawn more and more to Liam (William Magnuson), who drives her home every day from soccer practice, despite the fact that Liam has a girlfriend, Sheryl (Emily Garrett). Well, as it turns out, Liam is also becoming more and more drawn towards Angie, and their attraction grows until Liam shows up outside Angie’s window one night, and, well, you can guess. (The way Liam uses a single finger to shut Angie’s computer during this scene is such a classic cocky high school/college boy move. My God. Does no man have any creativity these days?)
Angie, despite feeling guilt for her continual hookups with Liam, cannot bring herself to end things because she does truly have feelings for him, but most importantly, because Liam is the one thing in her life not spinning out of her control. Post-divorce, her white mother (Liz Waters, who looks suspiciously young to have birthed a teenager) has become more of a workaholic than usual, leaving Angie to fend for herself most nights. Angie’s Chinese father (KaiChow Lau) immediately begins dating Min (ShanShan Jin), and happily converses in Mandarin with both Min and her daughter, Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui), leaving Angie—who never learned the language—feeling usurped and uncertain of her racial identity. So, she sticks with Liam. Of course, this can’t last, and when Angie and Sheryl bond over an English project, things come to a head.
I have very few quarrels with Inbetween Girl. Most of the resolutions to Angie’s story feel appropriately messy, though some seem a little too neat; however, through the whole way, we are anchored by Emma Galbraith’s wonderful performance. She smoothly navigates all of Angie’s conflicting emotions, giving us a grounded, natural performance that never falls prey to any of the teen movie trope traps (say that five times fast). The rest of the cast give almost uniformly solid performances—in particular Magnuson, Garrett, and Lau—and Makino’s script gives them all a chance to shine.
Makino manages to make a very specific storyline about a biracial teenage girl discovering her sexuality in Galveston, Texas have resonance across all walks of life while still maintaining Angie’s unique identity on its own, pulling off a tricky balancing act with ease and charm. For a feature debut, this is no small feat, and if this is only the beginning for both Galbraith and Makino, I can’t wait to see where they go next.