By Katherine Tolentino | Drama
A young Chinese girl struggles to adapt to her new life in America.

Wendy is a Chinese teenager living in the U.S. for three years, sent by her parents to get a better education. Rebellious and unmotivated, she’s struggling academically and doesn’t fit in, either in her American home or school.

But when Mei-Ling, another Chinese student, arrives as well, it disturbs Wendy’s equilibrium. Mei-Ling is eager, polite and grateful, which annoys Wendy. But as the relationship between the two develops, Wendy confronts the choices she’s made and the person she has become, as well as the toll that being away from her family for so long has taken.

Written and directed by Katherine Tolentino, this short social drama combines a coolly analytical eye with a dry sense of humor, creating a character portrait of a teenager alienated from the world around her and wandering adrift into adulthood. But it’s also an observation of how so-called “parachute kids” — children sent to a new country to live alone or with a caretaker without their parents — fare in a system with little support and guidance.

The visual style and pacing are seemingly straightforward and observational, with a sense of life unfolding rather than a story being sculpted. The writing, too, veers towards the pared-down and simple, with the narrative setting up its characters and circumstances with care and precision.

This simplicity belies a thematic and emotional complexity, however, layering explorations of transnational migration with a tale of teenage rivalry and jealousy. These two strands come together in direct conflict, embodied through Wendy and Mei-Ling, played with precision by Nicky Zou and Zoe Lau, respectively. Zou’s Wendy is surly, apathetic and rebellious, and her parents and host family have given up on her in different ways.

By contrast, Lau’s Mei-Ling is almost comically cheerful at first, but as the action unfolds and the conflict becomes more pointed, both girls become complex, as does their relationship with one another. Wendy started with the same enthusiasm as Mei-Ling, but she has stepped far from the path set out for her. She’s both disdainful and jealous — a toxic set of traits that, combined with the lack of guidance in her life — leads to a shocking moment.

“Parachute” was inspired by real-life incidents of groups of “parachute kids” living by themselves in Los Angeles brutalizing one of their own. (Many were convicted and now serving time in the prison system.) Like these events, the end of “Parachute” is shocking in its bluntness and abruptness. But the film also asks us to consider the larger context and find some understanding of this shocking violence: what it means to send away a young person at some of their most formative years, to essentially fend for themselves far from family, guidance or even love.

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