Tonight Katrina and I watched the movie "Adopted," a documentary that depicted two journeys — a family's adoption of a little girl from China, and an adult Korean adoptee's attempt to confront her feelings about being adopted and to get her parents to understand and acknowledge them. We thought it was great — painful, but great — and highly recommend it to anyone interested in international adoption issues, which I write about here occasionally.
The movie's strength lies in comfort with contrasting views of adoption, and ultimately with its comfort with ambiguity. The adult adoptee is deeply troubled, and growing up in an all-white community without any familial understanding of the impact of her ethnicity has wounded her, perhaps irrevocably. But she's also shown to be utterly devoted to her parents and her patient, supportive brother — her alienation does not prevent her from loving them. The adoption of the little girl is depicted as joyous, and she's clearly immediately well-attached to her parents — and yet her mother is openly tormented with the idea that her joy comes at the inevitable expense of a long-term sense of loss in her daughter. Barb Lee — who I learned is a first-time director, much to my surprise — does not attempt to tell an easy story; she offers neither the popular view that international adoption is an unqualified good, nor the criticism that it is intrinsically bad. She clearly thinks that, like people, it's messy and complicated — which it is.
I also liked how Lee used cinematic techniques to convey feelings and messages with a level of facility I don't often see in documentaries. The scene in which the young couple meets their little girl for the first time in a drab government building in China is brilliant precisely because Lee used such a sparing touch in editing it. Her choice to leave in the chaotic camera movements, the nearly unendurable echoing din of babies crying and new parents anxiously trying to soothe them, and the raw chaos of the moment was uncannily familiar to us and evocative of the dislocation and loss that moment represents.
It's a good movie, but not an easy movie, for adoptive parents to watch. Lee shows powerfully how the adult adoptee's parents lack the language to respond to their daughter's feelings and questions. But she doesn't let the daughter off the hook, either. It's ultimately a very human story, showing fallible people trying with love and the best of intentions to connect, and not always succeeding.
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