Eng just can’t seem to find “her” people at school. The girls on the basketball team treat her like a new girl stuck on the bench, while the other kids of Chinese heritage, think she isn’t Asian enough. In Americanized, writer/director Erica Eng paints a portrait of a teenager struggling to fit in, caught between her identity and aspirations. Despite the specific cultural background of the story, it has an undeniable universal appeal, which makes the story all the more engaging and emotionally compelling.
“I didn’t feel fully Chinese, or fully American – I just felt lost”
This feeling of not belonging as a teenager is hardly new, it’s a trope seen in many stories set in high school. The originality of Americanized relies on the fact that it is squared, with its central character stuck between two worlds, in both of which she’s perceived as not enough of one and too much of the other. Eng confesses that it is actually a very personal story, as she based it on her own experience as a fifth generation Chinese American: “I didn’t feel fully Chinese, or fully American – I just felt lost”, the filmmaker reveals.
The authenticity that went into the screenplay translates perfectly to screen, working to compliment the emotional arc of the narrative. By setting her story in Oakland, Eng not only echoes her own experiences, but also captures the hip-hop culture that is so influential in her main character’s life. Through subtle and nuanced moments, we see how out of place Eng feels no matter where she is: on her team or with the other Asian kids. With the story set in high school, the bullying she is subjected to cuts even deeper, because as a Chinese American teenager she is already having to deal with building her own identity, caught in between these two cultures. And that was something that Eng was particularly focused on portraying in Americanized, the director explaining that she wanted to “showcase the diversity within the Asian American experience”.
Narratively speaking, it is her sense of belonging that is front and center in the storyline and is key in emotionally engaging the viewer. With the ups and downs, it is all the more devastating when she finally feels like she found her place, only for this feeling to be taken away so quickly. Eng does not stray from her realistic frame though, opting for an ending that has a silver lining and a warm sense of hope, using our knowledge about life post-high school, rather than wrapping the story in a contrived way for the sake of a good ending.
During the 17-minute runtime of the film, the camera is constantly pointed at Terry Hu, who portrays Eng and her struggles with a fierce intensity. Despite the attacks she suffers from her classmates, her struggle is internal and it is with very few words that she brings it to the screen in such a compelling way. Her small moments of joy are so contagious, they make her character impossible not to root for and every time she is reminded that she is not “one of them”, we feel that rejection deeply through the sadness she communicates with her eyes.
Americanized made its way around the festival circuit during the 2021 season. Along the way it picked up the Young Cineastes Award at the Palm Springs ShortFest and won the Best Dramatic Short award at Cinequest, which subsequently made the film eligible for Academy Award consideration in 2022. Eng’s follow-up short Off Fairfax premiered in the Tribeca Now category at the 2022 edition of the festival and she has also been selected for the second edition of Disney’s Launchpad Shorts Incubator.