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  • Ella Wu

Holly Kaplan Reflects on the Bittersweetness of Youth in 'Sunflower Girl' (2023)

Skateboard wheels on asphalt and a mellow, pulsing instrumental ease us into “Sunflower Girl” (2023), a tender yet poignant coming-of-age short film. Rosie (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the narrator and protagonist, is a girl on the cusp of teenhood, her pale yellow shirt a nod to her true name, Kui — which means sunflower. 

Cairo Zion as Skylar (left) with Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Rosie (right). Sunflower Girl LLC 2023.

Rosie has a crush on a boy in her neighborhood, which leads her to make some hasty decisions that she may or may not end up regretting in the long run. It’s this awkwardly desperate, gentle spirit of early adolescence that director Holly Kaplan taps into in her nostalgic short film. 

“So, COVID happened, and I moved back home [to New York City],” Kaplan explains. “Being in my childhood neighborhood and everything, old stomping grounds and the school I went to…it was really desolate. The city was completely dead. So [I] was just doing these walks to go outside and by myself and just be in these old environments. That kind of sparked this idea, these memories I had.”

“I was remembering all these people from school,” she continues. “All of these things kind of just started coming into my head, and that’s when I think the wheels started turning.”

Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Rosie. Sunflower Girl LLC 2023.

There’s a warm haze that blankets every shot of the film, bathing the screen in a vintage summer glow. It’s not just aesthetic; it’s a thin veil cast over the past that both softens the edges and intensifies the emotions. It’s evocative, luminous, and absolutely gorgeous. This visual poetry complements Rosie’s journey in a time when the character’s world seems both expansive and suffocating.

“I owe it to working with my incredible DP, Michael Cong,” Kaplan says. “We ended up choosing an older camera with vintage lenses. It helped sell that look, that [the film] was nostalgic.”

Beyond her age, Rosie’s identity contains another layer that the film makes space to examine. She’s a second-generation Chinese-American, lending a specificity to the character’s perspective and filtering how she moves through the world and the choices that she makes. 

“I hope [this story] resonates with Asian-American femmes,” Kaplan says. “Or Asian diasporic people who have the experience of feeling like they are an outlier in their family. Sometimes it’s lonely to be [that] one person. You’re kind of going against the grain and you’re doing what you like. That’s really the whole story of the film. It’s okay to be human.”

“Sunflower Girl” has been selected for and screened in film festivals worldwide, from India to Sweden to the U.K. and Canada, a promising triumph for Kaplan. “We’re finishing up our last year of festival [submissions],” she says. “We’re waiting to hear back. Hopefully it’ll get into even more and we’ll be all around the world and still in the U.S. and all that.”

“I think this honestly just taught me to believe in myself,” Kaplan concludes. “That’s the biggest lesson, I think.”

“Sunflower Girl” will be screening this June in Singapore, Poland, and Canada. 


About the filmmaker:

Photo: Meghan McDonald

Holly M. Kaplan is a Chinese-American filmmaker, born and raised in New York City. Inspired and driven by ties to her mixed Cantonese heritage, Holly is invested in bringing narratives about the Asian diaspora and diversity to the forefront. She earned her BA in Film & Media Arts at American University and completed a filmmaking program at FAMU International Prague, where she filmed her first short, “THE LESSON.” A former apprentice to the late Independent Director/Producer Ben Barenholtz, Holly served as Director’s Assistant to Executive Producer/Director Lisa Soper and Director Alex Pillai on “PRETTY LITTLE LIARS: ORIGINAL SIN” (HBO Max). In 2022, Holly was selected for NALIP’s Latino Lens: Narrative Short Film Incubator for Women of Color sponsored by Netflix to write, direct, and produce “SUNFLOWER GIRL.”

About the film:

Illustrated and designed by Jee Kim

When a 13-year-old Chinese-American girl has the opportunity to go skateboarding with her crush, it comes at the cost of abandoning her little sister.

Cover photo: Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Rosie. Photo by Luna Cristales. Courtesy of NALIP.


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