Smiling awkwardly for an iPhone camera, Sadie makes her pitch to the birth parents she’s hoping might be out there somewhere. “I know this can be difficult,” she says. “But I’m hoping to figure out the story from all sides.” No spoilers on whether Sadie gets her wish in the most direct sense — that is, whether she gets to meet them — but Found takes Sadie’s words to heart more broadly. The documentary goes out of its way to consider the situation from all angles, and what might look from the outside like a simple story spills over with complicated emotions once it’s been cracked open.
Directed by Amanda Lipitz (Step), Found centers on three cousins, Sadie, Lily and Chloe, all Chinese-born teenagers raised by white American families, who discovered each other on 23andMe. Beyond their genetic connection, the girls’ biological families are a mystery to them. All three were left as infants in public places, to be found by strangers and taken in by orphanages. But the thrill of finding each other empowers the girls to take the next step, and the three families decide to embark on a trip together to China to rediscover the girls’ roots — and, perhaps, find their birth parents along the way.
The Bottom Line
Thoughtful and compassionate.
Lipitz takes an unfussy, unhurried approach to the story that prioritizes immediate lived experience over detached analysis or splashy reveals. Her camera follows her subjects to church services or ice cream outings as well as to more momentous events, and finds them for interviews in the crowded offices or messy bedrooms where they already carry out their day-to-day lives.
The emotions on display are unfiltered but showy, exemplified by the many shots of tears slowly leaking from eyes during a conversation. Found accomplishes the trick of feeling intimate but not exploitative so deftly that it hardly feels like a trick at all — the viewer is treated like a member of the family, invited to share in their joys and sorrows but also trusted to respect boundaries around their more private moments. (It should be noted that in Chloe’s case, Lipitz actually is a member of the family; Chloe is Lipitz’s niece.)
In that regard, it helps that Found does not come armed with any overt agenda beyond following these girls’ journeys. The documentary necessarily touches upon political issues: The reasons the girls were given up are presumed to have to do with China’s one-child policy, the economic circumstances of their birth parents and the cultural preference for male children.
Meanwhile, each of the girls grapples in her own way with the challenges of growing up Asian among mostly white communities, and therefore rarely seeing themselves reflected in the world around them — or feeling estranged in the moments when they’re expected to, as in an anecdote relayed by Sadie about disappointing a friend’s Chinese father by admitting she can’t speak the language.
But Found is not a soapbox statement or a history lesson. (Nanfu Wang’s more pointed One Child Nation would make a good companion piece, though.) It’s a delicate excavation of the personal repercussions of those realities, and not just for the girls.
Their adopted parents look overwhelmed with emotion during the trip, even as they reiterate their unflagging support for their daughters. Liu Hao, a Beijing-based researcher helping the girls track down their birth families, chokes up as she reveals her own painful, personal interest in this line of work. In her investigations, Liu speaks with possible birth parents who relay in wrenching detail how they waited until early morning to put the baby out by the side of the road so they wouldn’t be too cold overnight, and with a possible sibling who expresses guilt about being the one who got to stay.
Found raises plenty of questions it can’t answer, from the obvious ones about where everyone’s biological family members are to fundamentally unknowable “what ifs” about how life might have been if these girls had stayed with their birth parents. Its comfort with ambivalence and ambiguity proves a strength, allowing the girls and their loved ones the space to work through confusing or contradictory emotions without trying to tie them up in neat little conclusions.
Often, a poignant symmetry emerges. The documentary opens with an orphanage nanny named Li Xuyin wondering what’s become of the babies she cared for until they were sent off to far-flung lands. Found can only speak for one of them — Sadie — and she’s asking the same question in reverse, wondering about the people who birthed her and nurtured her as a baby. Maybe neither will ever find the resolution she hopes for. But by weaving their stories together, Found presents the search as its own kind of answer.