A movie with less on its mind could probably get by just fine on that premise alone and, pretty much, could be written on autopilot. There are obvious heroes and villains (or their teenage rom-com equivalents), plenty of opportunities for jump-out-the-window-naked comedic beats, and even a perfectly logical and satisfying ending. But Inbetween Girl consistently and poignantly refuses to take the easy way out with its characters or narrative, preferring a messier, more empathetic approach to things like sexuality and friendship and finding (or not quite finding) oneself.
Makino treats young people as people. She isn’t interested in making heavy-handed arguments about romance, race, or morality. Angie and Liam and even, refreshingly, Sheryl have a lot to learn about themselves and life. The story never sells them out for an easy joke or an obvious dramatic reversal. An obvious reference point might be Great Gerwig’s similarly thoughtful, nuanced Lady Bird, right down to the Catholic school setting.
It’s the questions of racial and ethnic identity suggested by the title, though, that most markedly and interestingly differentiates Inbetween Girl. When Angie’s dad enthusiastically throws himself into a relationship with another Chinese woman – whose Stanford-bound daughter Fang (Thanh Phuong Bui) is the same age as Angie, and who’s proudly encouraged the speaking of Mandarin in her house – Angie is forced to consider whether she’s Chinese enough for them to accept her. Angie’s struggle to define herself culturally thus becomes as fraught with confusion as her clandestine relationship with Liam.
“…Makino displays an exceptionally keen eye and ear for the emotional roller coaster that is teenage life…”
Again, though, Inbetween Girl doesn’t mine this situation for hackneyed melodrama, and because of that more delicate touch, the most perceptive dramatic beats tend to creep up unexpectedly and hit home that much harder – they never quite arrive or play out quite as you’d expect. Makino displays an exceptionally keen eye and ear for the emotional roller coaster that is teenage life, and it’s all handled with surprising adroitness by the cast of young unknowns; none more so than Galbraith, who’s excellent.
The movie is a bit less successful with its adult characters, some of whom – like Angie’s mom and, especially, Sheryl’s – are drawn too broadly to connect the same way that their younger counterparts do. However, maybe there’s a point to be made there, too; the grown-ups feel a bit one-note precisely because their daughters and sons see them in those simplified, almost condescending terms.
Such minor missteps don’t detract from the film’s overall worth, both as a finely observed tale of teenage self-discovery and self-acceptance and as a reminder of how simultaneously joyous, mortifying, and chaotic that period of life can be. Anybody can enjoy and appreciate Inbetween Girl, but maybe somebody, right now, needs it – and, here’s hoping they can find it.
Inbetween Girl screened at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.
"…as engaging and heartfelt a coming-of-age story as has made it to the screen in some time."