Review: She Lights Up Well (Wu, 2014) – CAAMFest 2015
Her first feature-length movie, She Lights Up Well is written and directed by NYU Graduate Film Program student Joyce Wu. Wu also stars in this semi-autobiographical film about a late-20s Chinese American actress named Sophie who, after a series of disappointments in New York, returns to her childhood home in a suburb of Detroit to “save up money.” Clearly embarrassed by the temporary setback, Sophie assures everyone she sees that she’s just stopping over and will soon be heading back to the eminently more glamorous Big Apple.
Though sullen toward her overbearing mother and hostile toward her successful physician brother, Sophie maintains a tender relationship with her grandmother (Tsai Chin, best known for her role as Auntie Lindo in the 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club), who seems to be the only one who understands and supports her. With little to do but work menial odd jobs that she clearly finds humiliating, Sophie takes up the duty of bringing her grandmother to her rehearsals at the community theater production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado. At first disparaging of the “racist” play, Sophie soon gets drawn in to the project when the kooky director suddenly quits and the play is in danger of being cancelled. Prodded by her grandmother, Sophie finds herself stepping up to try and save the production and its cast of untalented misfits from being shuttered by the city council, led by a mayor with clear Tea Party leanings.
This quirky comedy is relatively easy to watch. The ease comes from being on familiar territory, though perhaps the territory is too familiar: the characters and humor feel a tad trite, with the characters drawing mainly from stereotypes and the humor tending toward the cheesy, relying heavily on poking fun at the patheticalness of the community actors. The plot, too, can seem scattered and sometimes strikes the wrong tone–what is intended to be uplifting comes off as flippant. I could also have done without Sophie’s romance with her old high school classmate (a football-playing member of the “popular” crowd), which seems both unlikely and irrelevant. Finally, Wu’s acting is rather artificial and listless, casting a sort of Eeyore gloom over the movie. Nevertheless, these flaws are forgivable in a film that clearly does not mean to take itself too seriously.
Overall, She Lights Up Well has the feel of a rough film school project, but I will be interested in following Wu’s work as she matures.