Adele Lim’s Joy Ride is a raunchy and propulsive feature directorial debut set in motion by a sweet chance meeting. It’s 1998 and Lolo (Milana Wan) and her parents have just moved to White Falls, a suburban and very Caucasian enclave in Washington state. Their first meaningful encounter with the neighborhood — which Lim introduces in a zippy montage — and its residents is at a local playground. “Are you Chinese?” the Sullivans (David Denman and Annie Mumolo), a white family, asks them. The Chens (Kenneth Liu and Debbie Fan) exchange incredulous looks before snapping back: “Yes, but we speak English.” And, they add, they’re from California.
The Sullivans are thrilled; it turns out their clumsy inquiry was a sincere attempt to help their daughter Audrey (Lennon Yee), a Chinese adoptee, make a new friend. So begins Audrey and Lolo’s relationship, which blossoms from there into an affectionate sororal bond. As the only two Asian Americans in their small town, they are each other’s mirrors and sources of comfort.
The Bottom Line
A whole lot of fun.
Audrey and Lolo’s friendship is the bedrock of Joy Ride, which presents itself as a caustic, Asian-diaspora-representational romp. The film, which premiered at SXSW and will be released in theaters in July, is laced with the same bawdy brand of humor as classic contemporary American studio comedies, from The Hangover and Pineapple Express to Bridesmaids and Girls Trip. And, like Bottoms, another spicy SXSW entrant, Joy Ride sets out to prove (or re-prove) that populations still marginalized by Hollywood (women, people of color, queer folks) can be just as unapologetically brash, bold and rowdy.
On that that last point Lim’s directorial debut overachieves. Joy Ride, which was written by sitcom veterans Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao (Family Guy), gets off on putting its characters through absurd, often side-splittingly funny situations. The film is packed with frenetic cocaine-fueled decision-making, raunchy threesomes and chaotic impersonations. The deft screenplay establishes the giddy energy coursing through Joy Ride, but it’s the performances from Ashley Park (Emily in Paris), Sherry Cola (Shortcomings), Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Sabrina Wu that maintain the film’s anarchic pulse.
After building its necessary backstory, Joy Ride zips to the present day, where Audrey (Park), a high-powered corporate lawyer, prepares to take a career-changing business trip to China. Closing the Beijing deal would earn Audrey, the only woman and seemingly the only person of color at her firm, an exciting promotion. Her boss doesn’t know that she, an adoptee with white parents, can’t speak Mandarin. To help her with translation, Audrey invites Lolo (Cola), now an artist who constructs whimsical, sex-positive sculptures, to come along. It’s been decades since the two women met on the playground, and although they are still close, the ruthlessness of time and divergent priorities threaten to change their friendship. Audrey itches for life outside of White Falls, while Lolo can’t imagine them living apart.
This trip to China takes on a dual meaning: an opportunity for Audrey to ascend the corporate ladder and a way for Lolo to rekindle the spark in their friendship. Joining the duo on their international adventure is Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Wu) and Audrey’s best friend from college, Kat (Hsu). After graduation, Kat moved to Beijing to become an actress; she’s now nationally beloved and engaged to her TV show costar Clarence (Desmond Chiam). Meanwhile, the introverted and well-meaning Deadeye hopes to connect with other K-pop disciples in Beijing.
The group’s first meet-up takes place in a club, where Audrey tries to keep up with the clients she’s courting (more details on the nature of the critical deal would have bolstered this plot point). It’s in this underlit and noisy spot that the dynamics between the four friends become clear: Lolo and Kat, naturally, are enemies; Deadeye struggles to find a place among the others; and Audrey is too absorbed in her own problems to notice what’s happening around her.
Like the best quartets in film and TV, the four friends form an unlikely crew, but it’s their differences that make their relationships with one another oddly comforting. Joy Ride balances its irreverent humor — a mix of sex jokes and insider-y, affectionate jabs at stereotypes within the Asian diaspora — with poignance. Audrey’s client’s intense interest in her family life prompts her to search for her birth mother.
Once you get past the contrived nature of this storyline, Joy Ride takes some surprising and heartwarming turns. The four main characters journey through China — from the city to the suburbs — encountering new friends and old family members. The film’s sense of humor is enhanced by Lim’s energetic direction — she plays with intimate close-ups and trusts her performers to experiment with their roles — and Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao’s genuine interest in fleshing out the four friends, giving each of them enough screen time for viewers to identify and root for them.
Conversations about representation in Hollywood, with their hollow promises, are generally uninspiring. Films with little sense of authenticity are zealously praised and upheld as models, because the scarcity of these narratives have left audiences with increasingly low standards. It then becomes too easy to roll our eyes cynically at the importance of having them at all. There was a moment during the Q&A after Joy Ride’s SXSW premiere when an audience member told their own story as a Chinese adoptee living in the United States. They, too, had embarked on a similar quest to find their birth mother, and Joy Ride helped them to fantasize about the kind of closure they didn’t get in real life. The viewer’s tearful testimony — received by a stunned cast and cheers from the audience — perfectly encapsulates the achievement of Joy Ride.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter