Something awkward almost happens at the beginning of Adele Lim‘s directorial debut Joy Ride. In the ’90s, a Chinese American family has just moved to a monoethnic Cali suburb when they’re immediately approached by a white couple who, from a glance, are either looking to earn diversity points with their specific questioning, or they’re simply showing their xenophobia. The scene practically begs you to shout, “The caucacity!” Yet the mood 100% changes when the couple in question ends up asking their new neighbors if their daughter could play with their daughter. Any initial cynicism immediately fades and is replaced with pure delight once you realize these eager parents were looking for a playmate for their lonely, adopted Chinese daughter.
Years later as grown-up Audrey (Ashley Park) and best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) journey to the East, along with Lolo’s Kpop-loving cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu) and international starlet Kat (Stephanie Hsu), these hapless travelers get into a real pickle as they search for Audrey’s biological mother in China. The absurd plot requires the ostensible main character to find her birth mom because her law firm’s potential new client, and the deciding factor in her big promotion back home, is family oriented. What follows is an uninhibited adventure that pays tribute to tumultuous travelogues like Eurotrip and The Hangover.
Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record when interpreting Asian American experiences in a way that doesn’t feel like a lot like poor guesswork and casual racism, but there’s been a discernible shift in authenticity these past few years, all thanks to the revolutionary (!) practice of hiring filmmakers part of the Asian diaspora. Joy Ride greatly benefits from its creative minds, including Seth MacFarlane associates Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, who not only have great insight, they also know how to poke fun without punching down.
Expect from Joy Ride a slew of scathing yet spot-on commentary about Chinese culture, not to mention raunchy and unapologetic humor that sets it apart from other recent Asian American stories. Thoughts of Sex and the City and Bridesmaids will naturally crop up as you watch this joke-a-minute, horny comedy unpack its ostensible lead’s personal baggage and air out the other characters’ dirty laundry. The film is explicit for the sake of laughs, but at the same time the effort as a whole is refreshingly sex-positive. You might argue Joy Ride is merely going with the social flow of things, although it’s best to remember Asian Americans are not always included in these open cultural discussions about sex, much less be put in charge of their own sexualities on screen.
What you might not expect from Joy Ride are those emotional gut-punches that sneak up on you. A long string of sexscapades and side-splitting one-liners will surely get the biggest laughs and quotage here, but it’s the film’s sudden sensitive side that rounds out the story for the better. There’s a good amount of warmth inserted here, and Ashley Park’s surprisingly affecting performance should be held in the same regard as Sherry Cola’s well-timed and unhesitatingly delivered quips. Without a doubt this film will speak to international adoptees in similar situations.
Joy Ride doesn’t end with a big finish; in fact, the story’s funnier set pieces occur before the last act. So the conclusion turns out more restrained than anticipated with these kinds of rip-roaring, ostentatious comedies. Nevertheless, trading witticism for a bit of heartfelt tenderness isn’t a bad choice. This friendship film is even more fulfilling now that it’s put on some emotional weight upon arriving at its destination.
Joy Ride premiered at South by Southwest 2023, and it will open nationwide on July 7th.
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