Adele Lim’s directorial debut is a raucous slice of representation
After scoring a box office hit, not to mention critical acclaim, you have to say the studio shot themselves in the foot when it came to handling Adele Lim, the co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians. A derisory pay offer for work on a sequel, at least in comparison to that offered to her white, male, co-writer, saw her walk away. bad news for them, great news for us, as knowing her worth, Lim channeled her talents into scripting (along with co-writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao) and making her directorial debut with Joy Ride. A film that takes the road trip comedy, and gives it a cross-cultural infusion that celebrates Asian-American heritage, friendship, and a healthy bit of fornication.
The film revolves around Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola), firm friends since childhood after being brought together as the only Chinese-American kids in a predominantly white Washington suburb. Close, but contrasts, with Audrey becoming a driven and successful lawyer, while Lolo has channeled her creative and anarchic qualities into her sex-positive art. For Audrey, her goal of making partner at her firm seems to rest on a perceived insight that her heritage might help close a deal in China, this is in spite of her adopted upbringing. Heading east, she brings Lolo along as a translator, with her companion also set on using this opportunity to help Audrey connect with her roots, and meet with her birth mother. Accompanied by Lolo’s introverted cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), they head to China, where they recruit to their number Audrey’s best friend from college, and now famous actress, Kat (Stephanie Hsu). The quartet soon find their plans go awry and their bonds of friendship tested as they embark on a road trip fueled by sex, drugs, and K-Pop.
With Joy Ride release sandwiched between the recent Jennifer Lawrence vehicle No Hard Feelings, and the upcoming Bottoms, starring Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby) and Ayo Edebiri (The Bear), we’re currently in the midst of a spate of female driven, R rated comedies. Lim’s effort delivers everything you’d hope for, with a raunchy tone, filthy humor, and physical comedy that verges on the slapstick.What sets this one apart is its embrace of both the Asian-American experience, and its setting unfolding largely in China. It gives freshness to familiar fare, and opens up the film to explore some resonant and entertaining themes.
Each of the core four have their own quirks, conflicts and baggage. Aubrey’s heritage and upbringing embodies the “fish out of water” theme of the film, “too white to be Asian, too Asian to be white”. Lolo cherishes her Chinese heritage and community, and channels her progressiveness and sexuality into her art, while also fighting the onset of adult-hood. Kat is a actress who has carefully crafted a pure, moral persona, one that has fueled her success, prompted her engagement to devoutly Christian Chinese co-star Clarence (Desmond Chiam), but it’s all at odds with her sexually adventurous past. Deadeye could be taken as just a sardonic element of comedic relief, and Wu’s comedic timing and deadpan delivery is one of the highlights of the film. But with Wu identifying as a non-binary person, it adds a subtle nuance to this character that is basically looking to make a human connection. Through the four women there’s a message that we’re all uniquely challenged and on a spectrum in some way, speaks to finding and forging bonds of sisterhood, and building inclusivity, all while plunging this group into a series of (mis)adventures, including a drug smuggling operation on a train, a sex fueled encounter with a basketball team, an impromptu K-Pop band impersonation skit, and even a foray into rural China.
For those who feel a film like this might overly scrutinize white people, we’re not the sole targets of critique and comedy (even if we do deserve it). The film hilariously dives into the Asian on Asian conflict to great effect. Yes the film showcases some of the racism encountered by these women, both casual and overt, but its focus is on cultural identity. The film is rooted in it, not preaching it, drawing form the Asian-American experience, but opens it up in a way that is potently relatable. In one example, it acknowledges the sexualization Asian women, but instead of reinforcing the issue and making things about men or societal expectations, the film positions these women in the ascendancy to reclaim their right to be sexually adventurous, make mistakes, have fun,and live their lives as they grapple with their way in the world. Joy Ride nails its take on the road trip comedy by staying true to that internal journey of discovery and by embracing representation, and in doing so reminds us how diversity freshens up a formula.
Lim’s direction is at times perfunctory, but often playful and channels the energy of the cast well, something aided by the snappy editing from Nena Erb. The script largely benefits from blending absurdist comedy with smart, insightful writing, but does feel a little tight at times, with some scenes lacking the space needed for a joke to land, or emotional beat to hit. The cast all standout in their roles and add extra dimension to well written characters. Wonderfully realized, warm, empathetic, and sharp comedic turns across the board.
These pandemic-tinged years has seen a shameful backlash against Asian communities in some corners, but in other ways an embrace of their culture and crafty. Beyond the incredible success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, projects such as The Farewell, Minari, Fresh Off the Boat, and Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, have all tapped into the immigrant experience to craft entertainment and elicit emotion. Joy Ride is another film taking a cross-cultural approach, fusing a familiar comedy genre with a raucous slice of representation. A cute, crude, and chaotic comedy that resonates with its themes of friendship and family. Both the one you are born to, and the one you choose.
Joy Ride hits theaters on July 7th