In between one culture and another. In between parents. In between social groups. And most importantly, in between youth and adulthood. That’s where the protagonist of Mei Makino’s delightful debut Inbetween Girl resides—and, eventually, flourishes. This tender, comic, coming-of-age drama neatly sidesteps some of the hoarier clichés of the genre with its vital performances and nifty visual style to present a rite of passage in a way that feels refreshingly nuanced and necessary.
Sixteen-year-old Angie Chen (newcomer Emma Galbraith) attends St. Michael’s Episcopalian school in Galveston, where she uses her artistic talent and smart mouth to cope with a messy adolescence. Being mixed white and Chinese American, Angie feels she doesn’t fit in. Her parents are divorcing. Her family doesn’t understand her. Other girls—especially social-media influencer Sheryl (Emily Garrett)—are more confident and popular. Angie’s caught between childhood and adulthood, between cultures, between finding identity and seeking acceptance.
To that point, nothing about this particular “Inbetween Girl” sounds revelatory, but soon opportunity seems to beckon for Angie when she starts a sexual relationship with her crush, soccer teammate and Sheryl’s boyfriend, Liam (William Magnuson). It’s a fling she has to keep secret from her parents and then from Sheryl, whom she has also begun to befriend.
Angie is an especially well-drawn character, based on writer-director Mei Makino’s personal experience. Makino herself is Japanese American but wrote Angie as Chinese American when she cast Galbraith in the role, a decision that she says made her approach the character from a new perspective and forced her to confront her own latent feelings of racial inadequacy. Galbraith is excellent as the sincere, confused Angie, whose snark earns her some laughs but more often than not complicates her relationships.
Having Angie address the camera directly, in the style of YouTube confessionals, as well as allowing her voice-over narration throughout, allows the character to develop remarkably over the film’s short running time. In an era when nearly anything can be recorded—and often is—Angie narrates and archives her experiences with verve and candor.
Even Angie’s decision to have sex with Liam is one that the film documents in full, but not in any exploitative manner. Her first encounter is awkward, subsequent ones more fulfilling: Angie revels in her newfound sexual activity without really understanding the social and romantic consequences sex entails. On this front Makino’s script and Galbraith’s performance shine and make Inbetween Girl special.
Makino and Galbraith are deservedly going to earn most of the acclaim for Inbetween Girl as it transitions from its successful festival run to its streaming release. At the same time, some special credit needs to go to the impressive artwork by Larissa Akhmetova. Angie draws as a diarist, and although she dismisses her work as mere “doodling,” the colored-pencil sketching both helps characterize her nascent feelings and gives the film a distinctive visual style. An animated sequence of drawings illustrating Angie’s newfound appreciation for sex is a highlight. Throughout the film, Akhemtova’s lively drawings help develop Angie’s emotions and traits. The effect is sometimes a little like the clever title designs of Ivan Reitman’s Juno, another film that uses comedy to navigate the difficult transitions of adolescence.
Those drawings end up being part of what makes Inbetween Girl special. Fans of other recent coming-of-age girlhood films like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird will likely appreciate Angie’s dilemmas. Feature films that take the trials of young females seriously—even if comic—are rare, and those featuring Chinese American protagonists even more so. The casual racism Angie faces is no less palpable than the often-virulent, sometimes violent xenophobia exhibited in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Films like Makino’s or the recent In a New York Minute can help characterize Chinese Americans for the struggles they face that are unique to them as well as for those, like Angie’s navigating her sexual identity, that are more universal.
Makino’s script is excellent, as is Galbraith’s performance. Among the supporting characters, Emily Garrett as Sheryl provides a surprising source of depth transcending her initial depiction as a mere Instagram model. She and Angie bond over a guy deserving of neither. And saddled with a far less dynamic character arc, William Magnuson delivers the requisite good looks and charm as soccer stud Liam, who like many boys his age has been taught all the wrong lessons about sex and sexuality.
Some may find the film’s conclusion a little pat and others its fare pedestrian. But for any open-minded viewer willing to spend 90 minutes with a smart, willful, talented, artful young girl navigating her sexuality, Inbetween Girl has more than a few insights and laughs to offer. Its visual style and charming cast carve out a distinctive new niche in the coming-of-age film genre.
Inbetween Girl is available to rent or purchase on multiple streaming services May 3.