Already two months into the summer, and we’ve reached that point where we could use a breather on the big screen. Something a little calmer, gentler, and above all original. The latter is most true in Adele Lim’s Joy Ride, but all three apply with varying results before it goes effortlessly raucous and raunchy. The concept is persistently novel, and nothing new. Although it has been a while since the last Bridesmaids or Girls Trip incarnate, let alone taking a fresh stab rooted in both experience, chaos, and the deconstruction of endless generalizations. We’ve been overdue for quite some time; mere camaraderie alone proves that. The bold stunts pulled are an added incentive.
Such recklessness starts early, going back to 1998 in a Seattle suburb. The point goes so heavily to include a Dave Matthews single over the logos – we get it, it’s the Eastside, but a fantasy version. One where friendships are fostered by the simplest of gestures. For Audrey Sullivan (Isla Rose Hall), it took her an extra moment to branch out as a toddler, adopted to affluent Caucasian parents. On a chance encounter, she meets the expressive Lolo Chen (Chloe Pun) while she plays defense against a racist 1st grade bully. From there, they were inseparable, even as Audrey (Ashley Park) grew into a self-starter in a local law firm. Whereas Lolo (Sherry Cola) evolved into a late 20s slacker, priding deeply in her suggestive art pieces. Crude working class versus top-drawer industry type, and yet they remain bonded to one another as late bloomers, moving on separate life paths.
Plans firm up on the cusp of a major business trip for Audrey. If she can strike a deal with overseas entrepreneur Chan (Ronny Chieng) on a business trip in Shanghai, boss Frank (Timothy Simons) will make her a partner. It quickly becomes a friends’ excursion on Lolo’s insistence, rebuffing an old dream the duo shared – a big adventure to find Audrey’s birth mother. Audrey willingly allows her friend to tag along for translator duties, since she alone doesn’t speak a lick of Mandarin. Tagging along on the venture is Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), a socially awkward K-pop fan who knows their people; and Audrey’s college roommate turned soap opera star Kat (Stephanie Hsu), about to marry her costar Clarence (Desmond Chiam), but is concerned about how to consummate their relationship.
Audrey scoffs at the hair-brained desire Lolo pitches, until her new professional contact poses a philosophical query – “If you don’t know where you come from, how do you know where you are?” That serves as fuel to Audrey’s hopes, and to Lim’s (Raya and the Last Dragon) personal story, assisted on hilarious and tender beats by co-writers Teresa Hsiao and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong. And all throughout, the mix stays loose and poised, comedy segueing to cogitation of an upbeat variety. I do feel, however, like the trailers might’ve given away Lim’s best tricks taking the adventure to a high watershed. Not a terrible thing, they’re selling points whose effects aren’t lost in full context, edited by Nena Erb (Insecure), like they were an intense cardio workout.
The collective escapades involved might mirror that level of unpredictability. Among them: a run-in with a drug dealer (Meredith Hagner in a lovingly gonzo one-off), and the subsequent aftermath. Disguising as a K-pop band to avoid customs personnel. Mutual hangs with a group of basketball stars. And an endless barrage of cultural reinterpretation. The last of these can downplay itself, keeping the narrative faithful to anyone facing an identity crisis.
Audrey’s most pivotal to that idea, confronting a lack of selfhood the further they all wander off a familiar path, away from the city. Suddenly she’s far away in a new place, gone from the influences and hallmarks that shaped her life, her version of the American dream. All that remains while in the countryside is the Asian heritage she thought she had known, but never completely recognized, and the need to face that head-on in her next phase of adulthood. The clock is ticking, for if the deal goes through, Audrey is considering a move to LA. On top of that, her friendship with Lolo is on shaky ground, but neither will openly admit it, particularly with Kat in the mix vying for attention, and Deadeye trying to break out of their shell.
Audrey’s friends often make a note to chide her for overlooking certain micro-cultural quirks, a regretful obliviousness parsed out in a jokey manner. But the script never tries to poke a jab that wouldn’t come from a place of truth. Lim makes more than certain of that with walls chipping away as she goes, maintaining equal focus on all four players, overlooking nothing on this wacky excursion. That mindset best leads to a funny script, consistently from the offset. But for Lim to also be funny with a profound lens is what sets it apart from most of these character-charged ensemble pictures, leaving it endlessly charming and cordial. Surprisingly, even.
Any other director would’ve just run with cramming too many jokes in a short span, not all which land square on their feet. Lim doesn’t pull a Feig; her approach is the difference between introspective dry wit and average standup. And the same applies to her cast, all of whom deliver a unique perspective on the situation. Cola with her sass, Hsu with cautious trepidation, and Wu striding about with unfiltered intellect and frenzy behind the “social outcast” aesthetic. It’s Park, the naturally adventurous stage and film star, who’s having the best time, living through every devil-may-care escapade, while staying quite down to earth throughout. The zippiest one-liners and tenderest odes most frequently fall to her, and she doesn’t bat an eye, completely drilled in and game for any swing.
Both Park and Lim find themselves of the same mind when landing a tearful final reveal, symbolic of friendships made, bonds challenged, family discovered. Amidst a litany of hijinks exercising the threshold of a typical R comedy – before it blossoms into a legendary one – the pair cut find a densely emotional core capturing both voices and gestures of nascent worldliness, discovering that through fresh eyes, and an impactful character study. Joy Ride leans in firmly, unashamedly, on the meaning of its title to continue what’s already been a strong season for adult comedies. And while it doesn’t do enough in the way of surprises or unconventionality, their off the cuff demeanor makes it far from a dealbreaker. The most fun these friends have might be in how they disrupt the familiar path they start on, excited to march ahead. When a road trip movie can pull that off, it’s one worth booking. (B+; 3.5/5)
Joy Ride opens in theaters July 7, with a set of early access sneaks at 7PM July 5; rated R for strong and crude sexual content, language throughout, drug content, and brief graphic nudity; 95 minutes.