Adoption breeds a host of complications not only for children, but for the various adults—parents, relatives, caregivers—in their lives. Found addresses that messiness through the story of three high school girls who were born in China but given up for adoption as infants as a result of the country’s one-child policy, and who choose to seek out their pasts as a means of understanding themselves. A documentary about identity and family that shrewdly sidesteps pat answers to tricky questions, it’s a non-fiction Netflix effort (debuting Oct. 20) that tackles a historical nightmare via the prism of individual confusion, sorrow, and suffering.
Found is a tale about women, since China’s infamous 1979-2015 policy largely targeted girls, who were less wanted by parents and therefore frequently given up for adoption, if not abandoned on the sides of roads, at hospitals, or at government buildings. That was the case for Chloe, Lily and Sadie, three teens who landed in orphanages before being placed in homes in, respectively, Seattle, Oklahoma City, and Tennessee. Raised in Christian (Lily, Sadie) and Jewish (Chloe) households by devoted and caring parents, this trio discovered that they were cousins thanks to the DNA ancestry service 23andMe. This revelation subsequently compelled them to further grapple with their shared heritage and experiences, and while their growing bond facilitated that process, the act of confronting their origins remained a rocky one, as Amanda Lipitz’s film sensitively details.
Considering that she speaks with a Southern accent and acts like a typical teenage American girl, it’s not surprising to hear Sadie state early on, “I honestly don’t feel Chinese.” Still, as with many children of adoption, Chloe, Lily, and Sadie have lived the majority of their lives trying to come to terms with their love for their adoptive parents and their curiosity about their birth parents.
Their cases are made even thornier by the fact that their biological parents dropped them in the street to be saved by others, and yet might not have done so if it hadn’t been for their country’s restrictive policy (and underlying prioritization of men over women). Wading into that difficult terrain isn’t exactly something Chloe wants to do at Found’s outset, although her relationship with Lily and Sadie—forged over three-way video chats—soon stirs in her a desire to look into her Chinese roots. Before long, they’re all agreeing to travel together to China (with their moms in tow) in order to better know their homeland and, with the aid of My China Roots research officer Liu Hao, potentially find the families that relinquished them years earlier.
Having been raised in warm, loving white American families, all three girls are wracked by a fundamental sense of disconnection and displacement wrought from being of two worlds. Chloe, Lily and Sadie are at once inherently Americanized and yet set apart by their appearances and their backstories—Lily, who requires jaw surgery that alters her facial features, is especially attuned to such issues—and their journey to China thus functions as an attempt at self-unification. It’s also a distinctly feminine odyssey, especially since Lily has been raised by a single mother and Sadie’s mom divorced her husband when the girl was young. In Found, women are presented as on their own and responsible for their own well-being as well as that of fellow females, as underlined by the trio’s eventual meetings with the nannies who cared for them when they were babies, often alongside dozens of other tykes who had also been put up for adoption due to China’s policy.
Those encounters are filled with anecdotes about the ugly side of China’s recent past and tears over the heartache of abandonment, both for Chloe, Lily and Sadie, and for their nannies, who loved their little charges and then had to see them disappear into the wider world, their fates unknown. That Liu feels equally connected to her clients, their former nannies, and the couples still searching for their long-lost kids—all because her own father never wanted to keep her, and only did so thanks to the efforts of her mother—further paints an overarching portrait of systemic misogyny. At the same time, however, Lipitz’s film resounds as a celebration of female solidarity in the face of enduring marginalization and hardship, especially as the threesome’s search for their biological parents—facilitated by Liu posting public ads about Chloe, Lily and Sadie, and then running DNA tests on prospective matches—brings them all closer together.
Bound by a common cause as well as similar struggles with isolation and upheaval, Found’s subjects do their best to reconcile feelings that are perhaps ultimately irreconcilable, and Lipitz charts their course, both in America and in China, with unobtrusive compassion and sensitivity. Employing a fly-on-the-wall approach, the director conveys parallels—such as the girls’ predominantly father-free situations and religious childhoods—with impressive subtlety, all while allowing Chloe, Lily and Sadie to speak for themselves on their knotted-up opinions about looking backwards and what it means for their presents and their futures. Moreover, she maintains focus on the delicate balancing act performed by their adoptive parents, who want to encourage their daughters to understand who they are, even if that begets pain, fear and, should they find what they’re looking for, potential anger and disappointment.
Found is ultimately a case study in adopted-child turmoil and a damning indictment of China’s one-child policy, which—by instilling quotas as a means of population control—wound up separating kids from parents, individuals from their birthplaces and cultures, and girls from cohesive ideas about themselves. That would make Lipitz’s documentary a morose affair if not for the fact that, in Chloe, Lily and Sadie’s upbeat outlook on their lives and their prospects, it also confirms that such unique circumstances aren’t always dire, especially when there’s plenty of love to go around. Moreover, the trio’s continuing friendship, as well as their healthy rapport with their adoptive parents, proves that, in the end, women have the power to shape their own unconventional clans and identities.