‘Joy Ride’ review: Adele Lim’s directorial debut is an R-rated riot

SXSW: Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu star in this ground-breaking Asian-American-led comedy.

After the well-deserved success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” it’s literally a joy to see the momentum of diverse representation continue with “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim’s directorial debut, “Joy Ride.” This particular Asian-American-led film makes history with an all-female cast, including one non-binary actor.

At the world premiere at SXSW, Lim joked that all they needed was an ally in the form of a rich white guy to make the film (thanks, Seth Rogen). Rogen backed off with his trademark deep chuckle and didn’t even try to steal the spotlight from the cast as they basked in their moment of brilliance.

“Joy Ride” is a great example of how important it is to be represented on screen, proving that Asian-American comedians can be just as funny, edgy and successful as their white male counterparts.

The film’s opening scene is a flashback to 1993, when best friends Lolo (Sherry Cola) and Audrey (Ashley Park) meet in a small, predominantly white town aptly named White Hills. The two immediately bond on a playground as they are the only Chinese American kids in the neighborhood. The fact that Audrey is being adopted by white parents is no problem for the spunky, outspoken Lolo – who punches a little boy in the face at the first mention of a racist remark directed at them.

As the girls grow up together, they cling to their common traits despite being completely opposite in personality. Lolo is an outspoken sex-positive artist with a stronger connection to her heritage than Audrey. Lolo uses her art to subvert traditional gender roles and expectations of women in her culture, and to start conversations about sex. Audrey is a low-key and successful attorney who keeps up with her mostly white male colleagues, usually named Michael or Kevin.

Screenwriters Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao quickly establish a comedic tone of racial commentary that is present throughout the film, showing no mercy in how these characters face judgment and labeling on a daily basis, even when others do not mean to hurt them. They also successfully highlight the barriers that Audrey and Lolo are trying to break through as women in their careers.

While Audrey appreciates that her colleagues threw her a birthday party (even though it’s “Mulan” themed), she takes things a step further by making a deal with a Chinese client to become a partner in her company. With Lolo working as his translator, he books a flight to Beijing and decides to kill two birds with one stone and find his birth mother. The friends are joined by Audrey’s college best friend Kat (Stephanie Hsu) and Lolo’s lonely cousin Deadeye (charmingly played by non-binary stand-up comedian Sabrina Wu).

Each of these characters has its own characteristics and contributes to the Asian American experience. While shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Awkwafina is Nora from Queens” explore the Asian-American experience in the U.S., “Joy Ride” differs by taking its cast to China and eventually South Korea they travel. This cultural immersion is challenging for Audrey because she feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Too Asian for America and too white for Asia. This struggle is one of many important and relatable experiences in the film. Each writer and actor brought their own personal experiences to the story and used improv several times during filming, which heightens the emotions and inclusive narrative to make it that much more real.

In addition to the thematic elements surrounding identity and friendship, “Joy Ride” provides a fast-paced comedy with sex, drugs, cultural immersion, and bridging the gap between younger generations and older ones. The crew encounters everything from drug smugglers, threesomes with members of the Chinese Basketball Association, to sleeve tattoos while traveling. The jokes avoid slapstick and instead wisely attack social stigma and cultural representation. They are evenly distributed among the characters with insults, embarrassing personality quirks, and sly remarks directed at unsuspecting or self-involved acquaintances. The script brims with comedy and social commentary almost to a fault because there is so much that these talented women want and deserve. With no such films available, the attempt to get the point across feels urgent at times, and there are few moments where the audience can fully absorb the impact.

The film’s approach to sex differs from other raunchy comedies in that there is no end goal for them to participate in the plot. Instead, sex is seen as natural, fun, and seen as a free medium for the characters to express themselves, be it through art, open dialogue, with a lover, or with themselves. Kat’s character is a successful actress engaged to her Christian Chinese co-star Clarence (Desmond Chiam), who believes she is a virgin. She struggles to balance her high libido with his male need for abstinence, and her promiscuity becomes a running joke among her friends, even though they support her sexual nature. The men in the film take a backseat to the plot, but are still comedic when introduced to a scene. “Joy Ride” aces the Bechdel test with a woman more driven by her professional dreams, legacy and friendships than a man.

Lim’s directing style is fairly traditional in structure and form, with some highly creative character sequences, illustrative interludes, and a hilarious K-Pop music video sequence. The writing is impressively complex for a comedy, drawing on more universal themes and broader experiences. For all these reasons, “Joy Ride” could easily travel longer than its 95-minute running time. With so much to say and a cast of extremely talented, lovable and multi-dimensional characters, a sequel doesn’t matter. “Joy Ride” is easily the gold standard for progressive, raunchy comedies and more diverse stories told on screen.

grade: A-

“Joy Ride” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate will release the film in theaters on Friday, July 7.

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