For adopted children curious for information about their biological family, that process can be especially complicated in cases of international adoption. Complicated doesn’t necessarily mean impossible, though, and the three teens at the center of “Found,” the deeply moving new documentary on Netflix, are optimistic enough to give it a shot.
Chloe, Sadie and Lily are cousins who found each other through 23andMe. Born in China and adopted by parents in the United States, they had no blood relations here that they knew of — and then suddenly, they did. Their bond is instantaneous and palpable, and while I may be personally dubious about the business practices of various DNA ancestry companies, the genetic tests they offer are what made these relationships possible. You can’t argue with how meaningful this has been for all three.
Lily is the oldest and just starting college when the film begins (she’s now a senior at Oklahoma State University) and Chloe and Sadie are a couple years younger. All three are charming and smart and going through the usual teenage angst on top of the confused emotions surrounding the circumstances of their adoption, the result of China’s one-child policy, which was in effect from 1979 to 2015. They’re also sorting through what it means to be part of the Chinese diaspora but with no one in their immediate vicinity (they each live in different cities) with similar lived experiences.
At one point we see Sadie next to her mother as they look through old black-and-white photos of long-dead relatives, some of whom came to the U.S. from Ireland. Sadie’s expression is unreadable but you sense some disinterest and she confirms that feeling moments later: “I don’t necessarily feel connected to them,” she says. “I know that’s part of my family, but technically they have no ties to me.”
At another point she reveals, “I used to watch this show ‘Fresh off the Boat’ and imagine my parents sort of looking like them.” These teens are yearning for something but also acknowledge they don’t always know what that is. It’s hard to articulate all their feelings but the curiosity is there. Which is why all three families decide to travel to China together and visit the orphanages where the girls were raised as infants. And also, possibly meet their biological parents if a match can be found.
Watching the documentary, you might wonder why they invited director Amanda Lipitz into their lives. They come across as private people but Lipitz had an “in”; she is Chloe’s aunt. Oddly, that information isn’t disclosed in the film. That feels like an important detail and it wouldn’t take away from the movie to acknowledge it. If anything, it would deepen it.
Their contact in China is a young woman named Liu Hao. She’s a Beijing-based genealogist who is their liaison, working to help find their biological parents. It’s a painstaking process that includes posting photos on social media in the hopes that someone might see the year of birth and the images and notice a family resemblance; then she travels to the village or city where the potential parents live and procures a saliva sample to test their DNA. Generations of families have been left quietly devastated by the emotional fallout of the one-child policy and she’s wonderfully sensitive to this: “A lot of my relatives, they just gave up their children, their girls,” she says. “And my parents, they almost gave up me because they didn’t want to pay the penalty.” Her mother’s side of the family insisted they keep her, but says she always felt estranged and unwanted by her father. So even though she grew up with her biological family in China, she has some sense of the dynamics at play. “That’s why I feel so connected with the girls,” she says of the three teens, and she’s able to locate the nannies who took care of them as babies.
It’s stunning to hear that each nanny remembers the girls so clearly. Are these true memories or wishful thinking? Maybe it doesn’t matter. “Although she isn’t my daughter, I raised her until she was adopted,” says one. “I fed her gently in my arms, as if she was my own,” says another. “We nannies, we aren’t cold-hearted. My heart aches whenever I send a child away.” It’s a lot for everyone to process and I was was drawn in by the conflicting feelings colliding at all once: Mutual grief and joy, but also confusion.
“Found” isn’t the only film on this topic. In 2013 I wrote about the similarly themed documentary “Somewhere Between,” which is also quite good and available to rent on Amazon. Both filmmakers in each case are white Americans. As this generation of adoptees enters adulthood, perhaps we’ll see them begin to make films of their own.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic content, and brief smoking)
Running time: 1:37
Where to watch: Now streaming on Netflix©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.