The Artfully Woven Layers of Joyce Wu’s She Lights Up Well
Reviewed by Charles Bivona
I could tell you Joyce Wu’s film She Lights Up Well is about a Chinese American actress struggling to find her voice in a creative world plagued by subtle, and not so subtle, racism. I could point to the scenes tackling this racism directly, and the scenes creatively alluding to it. I could even spend a paragraph on our hero, Sophie—played by Wu—wrestling with the cognitive barriers of race relations while training actors at a local theater. In fact, I could easily focus on any one of those points and develop it into a full review that compels you to see She Lights Up Well. Because you should see this film.
However, if I lingered on any one of these topics, I would miss telling you this is also a story about the difficult relationships between multiple generations of immigrant families. To keep it brief, I’d have to gloss over the linguistic relationship between Sophie and her mother. And then there’s Sophie’s grandmother—brilliantly played by Tsai Chin. She could be the topic of a separate essay entirely. Grandma will remind an audience obsessed with youth how important the wisdom of an elder truly is.
And what of this film’s message on the social and political role of theater? Or the joy of finally finding your niche, your artistic community?
Despite all of these thematic layers, Joyce Wu manages to ground the story in her main character. We get to know Sophie. We watch her struggle and fall. We watch her grandmother pick her up, brush her off, and slowly teach her to trust in herself. We even get to watch our hero vanquish her high school romcom demons in the most satisfying way imaginable—with a laugh.
Indeed, there are a lot of laughs in this film. It is, after all, a comedy. But the laughs always come in between the everyday disappointments and small human triumphs that will make everyone see themselves in She Lights Up Well.