Chinese adoption is explored through the eyes of three teenage girls seeking out their roots — and each other — in “Step” director Amanda Lipitz’s warm and heartfelt documentary “Found.” Weaving together the stories of Chloe, Sadie, and Lily, the film shows how tracing one’s genealogy as a Chinese adoptee in the U.S. can be a difficult task, but with a little help from 23andme and just a bit of pluck, it’s not impossible.
The three high school-aged girls were all born in China but adopted by parents in the United States, and now live in Tennessee and Oklahoma City. After a mail-in DNA test connects them as blood-related cousins, they use social media to bond and eventually join together to travel to China — a place none of them has any firsthand experience of — to examine their past. The uncertainty surrounding their adoption stems from China’s One Child Policy, in effect from 1980 through 2015, which was meant to stimy China’s rapidly swelling population, but ultimately left many children displaced.
Chloe, Sadie, and Lily (who, the oldest, is on her way out of high school and soon into college) all express an eagerness to learn Mandarin, which isn’t part of their middle American high school education. For these teens, pop culture — namely a show like “Fresh Off the Boat” — is their only connection to their parents and Chinese family members. As the three families form an intimacy and head to China together, audiences will likely wonder how Lipitz cultivated such up-close access to their saga. The director, before turning to documentary filmmaking, produced stage shows like “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and “The Humans,” is Chloe’s aunt. But that relationship doesn’t create any bias toward one subject over another. If anything, her affection and curiosity for their paths is evenly spread across the three girls.
Their point of contact in China is a genealogy expert named Liu Hao, who lives and works in Beijing. She offers some of her own reflections on the One Child Policy, including the fact that boys were prioritized over girls, and that systemic sexism isn’t easily shaken off. “You’re the wrong gender, and they don’t want you, and you know that,” Liu says. Her parents ultimately kept her, at the behest of her mother, but that didn’t make for easy familial relations heading into adulthood, especially with her father.
It’s fascinating to watch Liu carry out the process of identifying and locating the girls’ parents, which starts as an ad on social media (the tool that enabled this whole project to exist at all) with photos of the children. Then there’s the endless culling through hospitals and orphanage records, and wherever her research leads her, she has to procure a DNA sample to substantiate the relationship. Liu spends months trekking across the country to locate their families, which Lipitz and editor Penelope Falk shrewdly condense into a 90-minute running time.
An emotional reunion with each of the girls and the nannies from their orphanages proves to be the moving centerpiece of the film. While Liu’s quest to find their parents is unsuccessful, the journey proves inspiring, as Chloe, Lily, and Sadie find the chance to explore China for the first time. (This film was shot just before the Covid pandemic, which delayed some of Liu’s intended further research.) Lipitz makes an interesting choice to juxtapose a shot of the girls walking along the Great Wall of China against an American flag hanging porch-side at Lily’s home in Oklahoma City. Their journey to discover who they are and where they came from takes them across the world, but ultimately brings them back to the place where it started: home.
“Found” is now streaming on Netflix.