Why Are This Year’s Indie Films So Focused on Adoption Stories?

It’s been an unusually fruitful year for films that explicitly or implicitly prod at questions of the self through the lens of adoption narratives.

by Kyle Turner

Madonna and Child
Courtesy of Getty Images

A striking series of images pass late into Lamb, a chilly domestic drama directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, in which the lead actors Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason raise a lamb/human hybrid named Ada mysteriously birthed on their farm. Ada is a toddler at this point, her adoptive parents and uncle (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) bouncing around to Eurovision-esque music in the living room, while she wanders around the sparsely populated land. She steps outside and looks into the eyes of another lamb. In extreme closeup, we just see the eyes of a lamb: is it Ada? Is it just another lamb from the barn? How different are they, their eyes peeled back with curiosity? She steps back into the house through a garage-like area and catches herself in the mirror. She sees herself, possibly for the first time, both of her family and apart from it. The image of herself as she is, a startle of self-awareness, whispers scornfully, “Will you ever be of yourself?”

It’s a curious, loaded question for children of adoption, like myself, potentially shouldered with something more fraught, or more joyful, than a simple “nature vs. nurture” debate, placing the child in a tug of war between the two. And in 2021, it’s been an unusually fruitful year for films that either explicitly or implicitly prod at questions of the self through the lens of adoption narratives.

There’s a self-lacerating quality to my fascination with adoption on film, a test to see if a filmmaker can capture pain and uncertainty. But my interest is also an attempt to discover how profound these films can really be when it comes to deeper truths about identity, humanity, and desire for stability within an unstable world.

Lamb is more metaphorical than literal, yet no less incisive for its gestures towards an unsureness and a recognition of familial displacement. There’s the implication in Ada’s mirror stage that she is beginning to understand what it means to be not of a family (which could be read as having an implied racialized context), and yet tied to it. Her understanding of love and security may be augmented by her adoptive parents’ own conception of parenting an “other” that they’ve rewritten as one of their own.

Lamb / Courtesy of A24

Parents whose own identities are hinged upon their relationship to the act of parenting is not unusual for this kind of adoption cinema, as previously exemplified by Christophe Gans’s 2006 film Silent Hill, which employs that folly and its collision with the trauma experienced by children of adoption, with images of an adoptive mother aggressively taking the mantle of that title wandering around a decaying, steampunk nightmare landscape. Pablo Larraín’s recent film Ema, about the fallout between a chaotic dancer (Mariana Di Girolamo) and her choreographer lover (Gael García Bernal) and the failed adoption of a pyromaniac child named Polo (Cristián Suárez) also focuses on the parents, the child in question only showing up intermittently. These adoptive parents are clearly unfit, driven by heightened emotions and melodramatic arguments, laden with accusations and misbegotten passion.

Polo is more of a device than a character, though, frustratingly, the film seems uncertain if even that is true; Larraín bounces back and forth between treating the child like a dramatic tool to express ideas about creation, control, and the chaos in the world, in relation to a mother figure that has the volcanically hypnotic power to create and destroy everything in her path, and like a real character with a consciousness that is primarily designed and illustrated by the adoptive parents. Each discussion of the adopted boy, written in staid dialogue, denies him agency. That is certainly by design, but Larraín’s desire to sign the adoption papers and have them, too, destabilizes the character as both a dramatic object and artistic subject.

Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael García Bernal in EMA / Courtesy of Music Box Films

Ema’s embalmed art house self-seriousness saps it of a sense of humor or compelling perspective about the subject, where Lamb’s weird supernatural conceit actually gives it a kind of emotional grace. And it’s not the only quasi-horror film to do that this year, with James Wan’s schlocky Malignant also offering a very genre informed point of view about adoption. Though adoptee Madison (Annabelle Wallis) has basically moved on with her life and compartmentalized that part of her personal history, the past always comes screaming back. She begins having horrifying visions of murder in a bleak, desaturated nightmare-scape, as if channeling another part of herself and her mind.

Wan’s inclination to use the artifice of its premise and accentuate that with a presentational aesthetic that bleeds into the acting style grants Malignant a levity about its topic; the sentient tumor in the back of Madison’s head, a not fully formed telekinetic twin that was excised at a young age, makes for an easily accessible symbol for the depressive and maladaptive forms of attachment that children of adoption can experience, but it’s wrought with a bombast that recognizes an absurdity in those lived experiences. (Though some may argue that its lack of seriousness trivializes those experiences.) Malignant is imperfect, but there’s still a curious and clever ability to take a modicum of the fear and pain of being an adoptee and how those impact other interpersonal relationships with genre-infused seriousness, while also indulging in ridiculous spectacle that’s tantamount to horror.

Maddie Hasson and Annabelle Wallis in Malignant / Courtesy of Warner Bros.

What’s clear in Malignant is a sense of bifurcation, an unsettled half of a person whose restlessness is never put to rest and that may manifest as a gaping hole in one’s life. In Justin Chon’s film Blue Bayou, its lead undocumented Korean adoptee ne’er-do-well tattoo artist Antonio (Chon) is relentlessly haunted by memories of his mother singing “Ja Jung Uri” and of images of being submerged in the New Orleans water, the leaves of the local cypresses hanging their arms just over the water as if swept up in sadness. His life is riddled with complications: he is in a state of financial precarity, he has been arrested for stealing motorcycles, he is illiterate, he has experienced abuse, and, after an experience of police brutality, he is facing deportation. And yet, his bond with his pregnant wife (Alicia Vikander) and her daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), as well as a new friendship with a Vietnamese refugee Parker (Linh Dan Pham) give him something to hold onto.

The film wavers between string-scored melodrama and jazz-flavored noir, the two modes inadvertently complementing one another: melodrama’s heightened emotions rest on (familial) units that are shattered and must be pieced back together, while film noir’s propulsion is based in the protagonist making sense of his identity in a broken world stained by cynicism and post-war angst. In Blue Bayou, amplified by expressionistic flashbacks and memories and grainy film, the yearning and rootlessness resists easy answers, instead the frustrating search for connectivity and its inconsistent results give the film a surprising complexity. As if aware of the tendency for adoption movies to rely on maudlin biological essentialism where happy endings rest on the adoptee being reunited with their birth family, Chon, who also wrote the film, presents a hazier portrait of survival: the tricky ambivalence of being torn between that biological essentialism and the creation of new bonds, with the constant awareness of the personal fragility of those ties.

Sydney Kowalske, Justin Chon, and Alicia Vikander in Blue Bayou / Courtesy of Focus Features

Though Chon has faced criticism for misappropriating the stories of adoptees, such as that of Adam Crasper and his high-profile case from 2019, the filmmaker has stated that he worked with 13 families and a Korean immigration lawyer during the writing and filmmaking process. Folded into the film is a critique of the justice system and immigration system, and it’s one of the few films about adoption to draw a connection between citizenship or national identity and the anxieties of adoption and belonging.

Regardless of the veracity of the accusations and defense, the desired sensitivity to the subject is understandable, but also, I think, emblematic of the delicate desire of adoptees, including myself. It is, without difficulty, extended to other marginalized communities, but the desire and the reality point out an inherent friction and contradiction that no one likes to admit: love is unstable, messy, cruel, and can often only provide the illusion of rootedness.

Perhaps the reason why 2021 has featured so many stories of adoption has less to do with the adoptee’s identity identity of being an adoptee in and of itself and more to do with the painful recognition of how our worlds become were split and fractured, how connections are severed, and how a search for tenderness and safety become became paramount, and how love itself is a promise waiting to be broken.

Then again, maybe it’s not. Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning midnight movie trip Titane is, yes, about a serial killer who gets impregnated by a car, but it is also a film that envisions a deranged Utopia at home in spite of substance abuse, dishonesty, and fraudulent identity. With a metal plate in their head and a trail of blood behind them, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) takes on the guise of Adrien, who has been missing for a decade, and enters the home of firefighter Vincent (Vincent Lindon) as his returned son. Though pregnant and dripping engine oil in lieu of breastmilk, Alexia becomes Adrien, or maybe Vincent just tells himself that it’s Adrien, or maybe he doesn’t care, and Alexia/Adrien doesn’t care anymore either. Ducournau’s initial preoccupation with the body horror of it all, and the film’s simple and amusing transhumanism give way to endearing sincerity: Adrien starts working with Vincent and Vincent shows them the ropes, they eat together, and they dance together.

Agathe Rousselle in Titane / Courtesy of NEON

Despite being capable of monstrousness and living in a monstrous world that doesn’t take too kindly to others, Adrien and Vincent have found one another as parent and child. Maybe familial love and connection, where those things are so easily frayed and fragmented, can be found, even though, in an adoptee’s eyes, it often feels like the world is burning down around us and we’re reaching through flames, hoping another hand will be there for us to grab.