(2020) Drama (Dada) Zhu Zhu, Amy Irving, Yanan Li, Harmonie He, George Christopher, Helen Slater, Robyn Payne, Meryl Jones Williams, Yi Liu, Nikolai Tsankov, DL Sams, Joe Holt, Ian Unterman, Kira Visser, Marissa McGowan, Tracy Ifeachor, Teresa Meza, Vivian Chiu, Tom Galantich, Amanda Chen, Zhuo Shunguo, Ruiyu Yang, Jia Chuanxi. Directed by Ann Hu
As parents, we want to see our children find the excellence in themselves. Sometimes, it’s more about finding the happiness within themselves. For a lot of kids, that means fitting in with the pack and not standing out too much (although so many teens complain that nobody understands the uniqueness in them). But some are most certainly NOT a part of the pack, and that can lead to difficulties.
Meimei (He) is a nine-year-old girl living with her two lower class parents Chen (Li) and Lan (Zhu), in a small Chinese city in 1989. Her mom, Lan, is the custodian at her school. Meimei is a sweet, adorable girl who is ostensibly happy and good-natured, although she is finding it difficult at school. The other children tease her mercilessly and the adult teachers have lost all patience with her. The reason? She can neither read nor write.
The American-born English teacher, Thomas (Christopher) figures out that the culprit is dyslexia Meimei sees letters as “confetti” but could retrain her brain to learn differently, if only she could get the right kind of education. Unfortunately, there isn’t that kind of education available in China at that time, with the emphasis on group achievement.
With Thomas’ help, Lan takes her daughter to New York City where they move in with a friend (maybe his mom?) of Thomas, wheelchair-bound writer Helen (Irving). She’s at first taken aback when she discovers that Lan speaks not a word of English and Meimei speaks it only somewhat. Helen is busy working on a book, has deadlines to meet and doesn’t have the time to hold the hands of two Chinese immigrants. Lan doesn’t even have a green card or work permit, so she gets a job at a garment factory being paid under the table.
But the school that they place Meimei in, which is supposedly inclusive of kids with learning disabilities, isn’t helping. If anything, Meimei is getting worse. She needs a private special needs school, an expensive one where Dr. Wurmer (Slater) is president. It seems to be an impossible dream, but with the feisty Helen championing them, maybe there’s a chance.
There is an air of improbability to the film that is sometimes hard to get past. Both Chen and Lan are unskilled laborers, definitely part of the poor class in China. How can she afford to move to New York? Problems that seem insurmountable are routinely overcome, or sometimes, just plain ignored.
The Chinese cast is strong; Zhu (whom some might remember from Cloud Atlas) shows fierce determination as the tiger mom who absolutely refuses to give up on her daughter, for good reason as is revealed later on in the film. Her chemistry with Li is natural and completely believable. And He? She’s absolutely charming, refreshingly so for an actor of her tender years. It is also nice to see actresses Amy Irving and Helen Slater, who had good runs in the Eighties and Nineties, onscreen again. Both respond with memorable performances.
While the movie does point out the obstacles that parents of children with severe dyslexia (and other learning disabilities) face not just in China but here, It also portrays a mother’s fierce determination to make the best life possible for her daughter in a world which is completely indifferent to her daughter’s present situation, let alone any future she might have. And while the plot might be something of a fantasy fulfillment, there is enough warmth here to overcome the raised eyebrows in all but the most jaded, crusty, curmudgeonly viewers. Which lets out most critics.
REASONS TO SEE: Harmonie He is about as adorable as it gets. Good to see Slater and Irving in a movie again.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stretches believability in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Hu’s own experiences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautifully Broken
FINAL RATING: 7/10