Will Yu, the creator of activist movements #StarringJohnCho and #SeeAsAmStar, daily tweets, “Representation matters today.”
If that’s true – and I’m of the opinion that it is – then the award-winning indie film For Izzy matters as much as anything I’ve seen in years. It’s a heartbreaking, yet hopeful story that presents several types of characters rarely seen in other productions.
The ethnic background of the four central personas certainly isn’t new; they’re Chinese. But their varying intersectional layers make each unique in my viewing experience. There’s Dede, a young lesbian filmmaker struggling with financial stability and drug addiction, especially after she gets dumped by her fiancée. She forms an unlikely friendship with Laura, a sweet, autistic young woman living with her widower father Peter, who cares deeply for his daughter but is overprotective to both her and his own detriment. Finally, there’s Dede’s single mother Anna, a Hong Kong banker who drops everything when her estranged daughter relapses, buying a house in Los Angeles for the two of them. Coincidentally, that makes them across-the-street neighbors to Laura and Peter, sparking the main plotline of the movie.
In a way, For Izzy is a film about the making of a film – a home movie, to be specific, shot by Dede as a gift for the unseen Izzy. It includes extensive interviews in English and Cantonese (subtitled in English) that tell the film’s story from each of the central characters’ point of view. These honest, even emotionally raw testimonials are interspersed with scenes from the characters’ lives, some of which are depicted via animation in the style of Laura’s doodles.
The film reveals early on the powerful forces driving each of the four’s actions. Dede (played by Michelle Ang, Emmy-nominated for Fear the Walking Dead) is not only reeling from the sudden implosion of her engagement, but also from a lifetime largely devoid of parental attention. Laura (Jennifer Soo, currently appearing in Center Theatre Group’s For the Love Of (or, the roller derby play)) shows strong interest in videography and photography, but is stifled by Peter’s boundaries for her. Peter (longtime big-screen and small-screen actor Jim Lau) himself spends his days doing freelance accounting work and taking care of Laura, never giving a thought to his own hopes and dreams. On the other hand, Anna (the much-beloved Elizabeth Sung, in her last film role before her passing) once dreamed of becoming a dancer, only to see those hopes dashed after becoming pregnant with Dede at the age of 17. (Not coincidentally, Ms. Sung herself was a real-life, Julliard-trained dancer.)
Dede’s addiction and total self-absorption cause her to initially react with annoyance to Laura’s friendliness and eagerness to please. But as Dede warms up to Laura, bonding over their common love for visual storytelling, she develops a genuine affinity for her. At first, Dede drives them around L.A., filming at popular spots like the Getty and Old Town Pasadena. Eventually, she begins to teach Laura how to get about town on her own, a development that initially causes Peter great anxiety.
While Dede’s and Laura’s friendship is blossoming, Peter’s and Anna’s relationship is budding into romance. Their common backgrounds as Cantonese-speaking immigrants of a similar age give them warm and increasingly tender moments together. For a time, all the central characters seem to find stability with each other, and even within themselves.
That is, until the weekend when Peter and Anna decide to skip town for a bit of extended time together. Back in L.A., while filming with Dede in Griffith Park, Laura suddenly feels triggered and panics, running off and getting lost. All the positivity that had built up in the four characters’ lives soon evaporates. Eventually, Laura tries to fix the situation on her own and puts herself in danger, plunging all of them into a true crisis.
I highly recommend For Izzy! The story is deeply affecting – one that’ll make you sad, yet point to a hopeful future. It’s clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, from writer/director Alex Chu and the actors, two of whom (Ms. Ang and Ms. Soo) share production credits on the film, to the many behind-the-scenes folks who couldn’t have been paid much, if at all, for their work.
See it also for the representation of Asians and Asian Americans whose stories are often overlooked, but which are told here – stories involving queer identity (where queerness is already accepted by the parental generation), autism and disability, addiction, and second chances at romance for single people in their golden years.
For Izzy deservedly has garnered several awards as it has screened at film festivals across the continent. It’s also available now on streaming networks Prime Video, Google Play, and YouTube. Get some friends and family members together to watch it; you’ll definitely have some meaningful topics to process afterward, about representation and much more.
In memory of Elizabeth Sung, whose artistry, activism, and kindness touched so many of us!