An Adoptee’s Reaction to ‘Joy Ride’ (2023)
Available in theaters July 7.
“Joy Ride” hits like a solid punch to that white kid’s face: satisfying, but maybe not quite right. For many, this movie is just another fun summer feature to see with friends. For the AAPI community, it’s another inch gained in the enduring battle for more representation. For adoptees like me, however, it’s all that and more.
The story goes like this: Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) are best friends. They are both Chinese. But there’s a twist! Audrey is adopted. Fast-forward a decade, and Audrey is a polished, stressed-out overachiever chasing validation in the workplace, while Lolo swaggers through life as a broke artist revolutionizing the sculpture world one penis or vulva at a time. Oddly enough, the duo work perfectly as they are. Of course, that’s when everything changes, and what follows is almost too insane to put in words. Stephanie Hsu shines in the role of Kat, delivering a performance as devastating as her Oscar-nominated turn in “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” (2022)—only this time, the reason I couldn’t breathe was because I was laughing too hard.
As enjoyable as the drug-infused, sex-crazed, tattooed shenanigans were, I found I was more moved by the quieter moments—the moments where, as an adoptee, I could recognize parts of myself on that screen. Ashley Park was fantastic in those anchoring beats, inviting the audience into the closely-guarded insecurity of Audrey with each flicker in her expression. I understood the dissonance in dealing with culture shock when entering your own birth country, the way she automatically gravitated towards white people instead of Asians. I flinched with her when Ronny Chieng implied she was incomplete without a family history to call her own.
How are you supposed to know who you are without knowing where you came from?
Identity is a lynchpin in so many AAPI films. Heritage, home, ancestors…these are the things an adoptee grows up without. This is the first movie I’ve seen that has allowed a character to react to a statement like that in a way that I truly understand. When Audrey found a piece of her past—the awkward convenience of Daniel Dae Kim being exactly where he was that day aside—I cried with her as she was introduced to the human behind the myth of Mother. I’m so glad I got to see those moments.
With that said, here’s the reason why I’ll say that “Joy Ride” is not quite there for me. For a story centered on an adoptee, there seems to be little input, to my knowledge, from adoptees themselves in this creative process. There’s something fundamentally missing from this story, and it feels like what’s missing is an adoptee’s voice. There were plot and character things that stood out in a painfully awkward way, and I asked myself, “How did this get in here? Where were we in the writer’s room?”
I don’t want to label “Joy Ride” as either a success or failure, because it’s not. It can be both, and still make sense as something to invest in and keep investing in. There are so many wins for the AAPI community in this movie that I can’t help but cheer it on and recommend it to everyone I meet. There’s sex positivity, diversity, queerness, comedy, family, and a heartfelt friendship to celebrate. But I want to be able to start a critical conversation parallel to the well-deserved praise, where we adoptees can feel like our voices are heard in the discussion of our representation. It’s past time to let adoptees have a hand in telling their own stories.
So, almost. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Cover photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate