There is great urgency in “Confetti,” the kind born in a parent who is very aware not only that their child requires fighting for, but that the battle must be waged and won in a set time limit that will define the rest of their lives.
Old age may not be for sissies, but neither is parenthood. Cinema is naturally inclined toward children who must be fought for, especially if they have the kind of adorable innocence that audiences always seem hungry for. Who can resist a chance to think of the children while remaining so comfortably insulated from having to intervene on their behalf ourselves?
The truly heartwarming thing in the case of young Meimei (Harmonie He) is how many are indeed willing to intervene. Born in a small village in a very much not crazy rich area of China, young Meimei quickly becomes an outcast due to her learning disability, which is diagnosed due to a visiting American teacher with the experience to define Meimei’s problem as dyslexia, but not the expertise to teach her and unlock her potential.
It turns out to be just the beginning, since Meimei’s parents discover so many obstacles to giving Meimei a good education in China that Chen Lan (Zhu Zhu) decides to head to America in search of a better life for her daughter in spite of the risks, which include having to leave her supportive husband behind. But like many a soft-spoken, self-effacing woman, Chen Lan proves to be quite determined when she must fight for someone else, and she proves capable of all manner of things when she arrives in New York City with Meimei.
For life to take another route though, Chen Lan has to overcome obstacles not just inherent to a newly arrived immigrant, but also an undocumented one. The language barrier and available jobs will and do pose a problem, but there’s also the unequal nature of education in America, one where schools which cater to students with special needs don’t just require astronomical amounts of tuition, but charge unseemly fees to prospective parents before they can even see a qualified professional who can determine a child’s needs.
Director Ann Hu, who came to the U.S. from China in 1979 and also wrote the screenplay, based “Confetti” off of her own experiences and those she encountered while trying to find a good school for her daughter, who is also dyslexic, and I have to wonder what exactly would’ve been the result if Hu had taken the documentary rather the narrative route. There’s a real intimacy to how she captures the small details that can make or break a life, how bonds are often built, and a quiet knowledge of just who is most likely to intervene and change lives
From the man who first diagnoses Meimei, who is revealed to be gay, to the wheelchair bound Helen (Amy Irving), who reluctantly takes them in, and Dr. Wurmer (Helen Slater), who not only listens to Chen Lan’s story but helps her overcome bureaucratic obstacles, to various teachers, it’s those who have been traditionally seen as outsiders who help mother and daughter build a better life.
That includes Chen Lan herself, whose full backstory reveals a woman who slipped through the cracks herself and is very aware of how much Meimei will suffer if history is allowed to repeat. Ann Hu’s respect and deep awareness of what women like Chen Lan have overcome is perhaps why some of her story is left untold, such as the logistics of Lan entering the country, and at least some of the aftermath of her separation from her husband. Or maybe Hu would just rather give more hope, which some of us might be in far too short supply of lately.