Directed by Adele Lim, Joy Ride is the irreverent, raunchy comedy of the year. But its real strength is the strong, central cast.
Joy Ride begins in 1998 with a Dave Matthews Band song playing over a montage set in a playground as parents watch their children before the record scratches. An Asian couple appears, horrified at the homogenous setting where they are supposed to raise their daughter, Lolo, until a Caucasian couple approaches and introduces their daughter, Audrey, whom they adopted from China. Playground racism briefly interrupts the heartwarming scene until Lolo gets them back on track by standing up to a bully, which makes them instant best friends.
Fast forward through quick cuts of the two growing up together, and in the present day they’re still besties. The film orients us to the world as they experienced it — predominantly white and having to fight to be the main character of their own lives. This film focuses on them and pushes everyone else to the margins as an act of real-world and cinematic reparations.
Audrey (Ashley Park) is a lawyer trying to close a deal in China and brings sex positive artist Lolo (Sherry Cola) along as her interpreter with plans to meet up with her now famous, college friend turned actor, Kat (Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu). And Lolo surprises everyone by bringing her cousin Deadeye (standup comedian Sabrina Wu in their scene-stealing feature film debut). In China, also known as the “motherland,” things do not go according to plan, and the group eventually goes on a cross-country road trip to find Audrey’s birth mom.
“Guess who’s going back to the motherland?”
Through Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s production company, Point Grey Pictures, Adele Lim (co-writer of Crazy Rich Asians) makes her directorial debut with Joy Ride and shares a story credit with co-screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao in their feature screenwriting debut. The filmmakers subvert the hard-partying road trip formula in unexpected ways. The story leads to a path of self discovery as they confront the truth about themselves, release the lies that they tell the world to fit in, stop suppressing their true selves, and become not just stronger individuals, but also a united group.
Many stories about Asian adoptees are told in documentaries like Somewhere Between (2011), Twinsters (2015), One Child Nation (2019), and also dramas like Lion (2016), Return to Seoul (2022), and After Yang (2022). They are serious meditations on identity, belonging, and community. With a smattering of commentary on socioeconomic issues. Americans often cannot handle such subject matter without being cloyingly inspirational, minimizing through humor, or being overly dramatic.
By contrast, Joy Ride is vivid, vibrant, fast-paced, and risqué without sidestepping the grave implications of adoption. Bawdy comedies like this aren’t unusual, but considering the all-time high of hate crimes against Asian people in the west, which includes fetishization of Asian women, the filmmakers risked offending the demographic that they are courting and perhaps perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Being sex positive is theoretically good, but harder to pull off.
“I don’t belong anywhere.”
Yet Joy Ride is daring and audacious without leaving anyone behind. Virgins are not the punchline. The movie empathizes with Deadeye’s disinterest in sex-related moments without laughing at their expense. And a character who is more experienced with sex isn’t shamed for her high body count, but the laughter comes with how she tries to hide her sexual history more generally. The film depicts an Eiffel Tower tryst with a strait-laced character, and she is firmly in control, not having something being done to her. In fact, it is a blip for her character, not a defining moment.
In the U.S., Asian men get the lowest matching numbers on dating sites and are either desexualized or depicted as asexual in media. While objectifying any human being is negative, sometimes to course correct, one must run in the opposite direction in order to make a point. Asian men are sexual objects in Joy Ride with plenty of ogling, slow-motion shots. Of course, this is not as groundbreaking since streaming increases viewing options from various Asian countries, and the rest of the world already knew that Asian men were hot. Americans are just catching up.
“If you do not know where you come from, how do you know who you are?”
Joy Ride explores another essential theme: images of conventional success versus reality as a barrier to self and community. Audrey tries to belong and believes that the way to do that is through conventional financial and career success with an unquestioning acceptance of American culture and seeing Chinese people as the other while simultaneously feeling relief at not sticking out as the only Asian person in the room. Kat’s career and personal life rest on her being a “good” girl and adhering to a certain image when she is as wild as Lolo. Deadeye, who could be an autistic character, has tons of friends…online.
Lolo thinks nothing has changed since elementary school, and she and Audrey will always be together. Only Audrey and Lolo are unaware that they are lying to themselves so the tension and possible rift in their relationship feels credible. They silently judge each other in ways that could terminate their friendship forever because Audrey fails to deconstruct her transracial identity. Audrey judges Lolo in the same way that she judges herself — by normative signs of success, money, and career. Whereas Lolo judges Audrey for internalized racism.
Friends discovering joy.
Deadeye is not introduced as an aspirational figure in the film, and Lolo’s proximity to her suggests a threat of marginalizing Lolo and hurting her friendship with Audrey. Audrey and Kat can be superficial and judgmental, which puts them in a danger zone of becoming unsatisfied people without a real community that loves and accepts their genuine selves. While watching the movie, note how much space Deadeye begins to occupy and how they become a rallying point for the story. If the least conventional character is free to be themselves, Deadeye’s ascendancy as a crucial member of the group signifies safety for others to be themselves. Their weirdness is wonderful, and Audrey discovers joy when she values Deadeye and recognizes their similarities. When leaving one majority culture for another, norms change. And in that shift, there is an opportunity to expand.
Joy Ride also never turns China into an idealized Pan Asian paradise. Whenever Audrey begins to put her experience on a pedestal, the film disrupts her fantasy. It emphasizes China’s diversity and touches on the bias within China among Chinese and against other Asians. Acknowledging these issues does not weigh down the narrative but opens it up to more jokes. It also highlights a way that Americans get things right: room for more solidarity within the Asian diaspora.
Joy Ride opens in theaters on July 7. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate. Read more articles by Sarah G. Vincent here.
JOY RIDE - 8/10