SXSW 2021 Review: Mei Makino’s “The In-Between Girl” Goes Straight to the Heart

Maybe one shouldn’t think too deeply about it, but you wonder whether Angie (Emma Galbraith) will actually want to watch the videos she records for her future self in “The In-Between Girl,” a collection of memories that she may be as loath to visit as a veteran of a foreign war recalling their tour of duty. In fact, everywhere around her is a battleground, with her parents headed towards a divorce at home and feeling like she doesn’t fit in at her prep school St. Michaels where she has spent four years as one of its lone Asian students, but she has a refuge in her bedroom where she can record her thoughts and not worry about anything else going on until even that is breached by Liam (William Magnuson), a popular kid who faces his own pressure and finds comfort talking with Angie, a friend from soccer practice well outside his usual social circle.

There’s almost something poetic about how Liam’s able to sneak in without incident when Angie’s mother (Liz Waters) is often away at work when it becomes obvious that no one is ever truly there for Angie in Mei Makino’s superb first feature, leaving the teen’s progress towards becoming her own woman not so much a choice she makes for herself as one that’s thrust upon her. Ironically, Makino makes one shrewd decision after another in “The In-Between Girl,” which finds its sense of suspense in whether anyone will be able to set aside their own concerns long enough to see someone else in their life is hurting.

With a sensitivity as striking as the writer/director’s ear for sharp dialogue, Makino creates a situation where you come to care about everyone in Angie’s orbit, all feeling imposing to one another but that facade crumbles quickly if they spend any time together. In the case of Angie’s parents, those hours are simply hard to come by after her father (KaiChow Lau) moves out and her mother is always busy, each keeping away their own unhappiness in different ways, but Angie’s dalliance with Liam is supposed to escape time completely, not only when the two lose track of it after transitioning from friends to lovers, but also kept a secret, so his girlfriend Sheryl (Emily Garrett), a picture-perfect Instagram influencer, won’t know, nor will the rest of the school that holds them up as the ideal couple. A class project brings Angie and Sheryl together and rather than worry about whether Sheryl will find out her boyfriend’s cheating on her, Makino is more interested in how Angie reacts when Sheryl turns out to be nothing like she thought.

Even if without the surprises in store for the characters, there’s a sense of revelation throughout “The In-Between Girl” with its sprightly mise-en-scène, courtesy of production designers Charlotte Friend & Ana Treviño and cinematographer Ivy Chiu, and Makino’s deft ability to get in and out of any given scene to hit the perfect emotional beats. (Larissa Akhmetova’s illustrations of Angie’s inner thoughts also prove to be a treat throughout.) A script that gives every character such dimensionality is only improved upon by a fine cast and its structure that moves around the experience of being a teen, never headed in one direction for too long, isn’t only savvy in giving room to show everyone having so much more going on than it seems from the surface, but observing how Angie can take inspiration from unrelated experiences and start building a worldview, something that’s all the more powerful when you see something as strongly and distinctly realized as Makino’s feature debut.

“The In-Between Girl” will screen at SXSW through March 20th.