Esther is a nine-year-old Chinese girl who was adopted eight years ago by a Pennsylvania family. Her family loves her, and surrounds her with love, stability and affection.
But when she spends some time with a Chinese neighbor and her daughter, Esther starts to realize the balance isn’t so easy. And when her family takes her out to a Chinese food buffet to celebrate her “Gotcha Day” — the day she was officially adopted — Esther realizes that it might not be “real Chinese food,” and questions her own identity in the process.
Written and directed by Sidi Wang, this crystalline, quiet drama has both a self-possessed sensitivity and exquisite visuals, in how it captures the ebbs and flows of a young girl’s shifting sense of identity. At a crossroads in her understanding of herself, she realizes her difference from her new home and family, which sends quiet but deep reverberations in her feelings of belonging.
The film’s most immediate characteristics are how just quiet it is. Its approach to visuals has a stillness, with a willingness to hold shots and allow movements and actions to play out. The camerawork seems to mirror Esther’s way of looking at the world, especially in how it holds small details that move beyond mundanity into something poetic. Esther is trying to puzzle out the mores, rules and concepts that are unspoken and perhaps even unconscious.
The biggest puzzle for her is the Chinese part of her identity, which comes to the fore when she spends time with a Chinese-born neighbor and her daughter, who is slightly older than Esther. In that small amount of time, Esther gains an idea of what it would be like to grow up in the culture and country where she was born: what she would eat, what she would learn, what language she would speak. The writing and storytelling here take a similarly restrained approach as the visuals, with thoughtfulness in the dialogue and a focus on Esther’s inner experience.
Young actor Jada Ferraro captures Esther’s absorption of these new ideas and feelings with understated nuance, portraying Esther as very sensitive but also self-contained. The performance also captures, with delicate precision, the subtle shifts in Esther’s understanding of her life and her self, especially when she is told what a lucky girl she is to have been adopted. Though the sentiment is kindly intended, Esther becomes aware that the Chinese aspect of herself has perhaps been erased or minimized in her transition to her new family — one that leaves her feeling inadequate or incomplete.
Told with precision, gentleness and empathy, “Lucky Girl” puts viewers in a position to understand just how difficult and even devastating this bereft feeling is for the young girl at the center of the story. It ends on these emotions of mute emptiness and incompleteness, leaving both the audience and Esther in a discomfiting position. Many who have a significant part of their identity flattened, minimized or ignored experience a gnawing sense of inadequacy. They’re surrounded by a world that provides for all their needs but doesn’t see all of who they are. So they stand apart from it, never quite belonging and never quite feeling at home, with an essential part of themselves made voiceless and invisible.