Fen was all set to live out her “coming of age” in Los Angeles, a Taiwanese transplant who still speaks Mandarin when ordered to, but who has grown up with American English and American attitudes.
But she quickly figures out that being exceptional in “the States” counts for little when her family has to move “back home.” In Feng-I Fiona Roan’s semi-autobiographical drama, she’s just a 13 year-old “American Girl” struggling with Mandarin, school and an unhappy home life.
Caitlin Fang shines in the title role of this Taiwanese fish-out-of-water tale. Fen sulks, struggles in school and takes out her frustration on her kid sister Anne (Audrey Lin), the mother (Karena Kar-Yan Lam) who moved them back and the father (Kaiser Chuang) who barely knows his kids and barely tolerates the wife who’d insisted that they raise them in the United States.
Whatever was going on in this marriage — and they had a place in LA and an apartment in Taipei to make this work — their reuniting as a “family” isn’t smooth sailing. The kids have American tastes and aren’t keen on the cuisine. They talk back and speak English around their father when they’re not supposed to.
Mom just wears the thousand-yard stare of somebody staring death in the face. She’s come home with cancer.
Roan’s film is set in 2003, so in addition to coping with a deadly disease, the shock of a school system which shames and canes kids who don’t do well and the friendless isolation of their new lives, there’s this new “flu,” SARS, tearing through Asia for the kids and their parents to deal with.
Dad has a management job that keeps him in Asia and sends him to the mainland for stretches. He’s their sole means of support, and wife Lily wants them living in better quarters, the kids both want bicycles and nobody eats his cooking after Mom starts chemo.
Little Anne, who is closer to her mother, frets about her health. But Fen is the one who picks up on the fatalism in her voice, the mid-argument pleas for her husband to take this step or that one because “I won’t be around much longer (in subtitled Mandarin, with passages in English).”
Fen may reconnect with an old friend at school who shares her teen obsession with horses, but lags academically and blames her mother for moving them and upending her life.
“It’s like when you got cancer, we ALL got cancer.”
Roan hits the waypoints in this standard-issue reconciling-with-your-parents story lightly, giving us the “one teacher who reaches out” (underplayed here) and making little of the culture’s acceptance of schools that punish and mother Lily’s futility in fighting that. We see Fen’s slow softening towards her gruff, short-tempered father and the self-absorption that makes reconciling with her mother a longer row to hoe.
Through it all, Fang makes her debut performance feel lived-in, with realistic dimensions, reactions and teenaged over-reactions.
The novelty of the setting and the particularly trying situation never lifts this formulaic coming-of-age story above that formula. But it’s still a richly-detailed remembrance of fitting in when you don’t want to in a place where fitting in is everything, and being an “American Girl” was a handicap.
Rating: TV-MA, corporeal punishment.
Cast: Caitlin Fang, Karena Kar-Yan Lam, Kaiser Chuang, Audrey Lin and Kimi Hsia
Credits: Directed by Feng-I Fiona Roan, scripted by Bing Li, Feng-I Fiona Roan. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:41