From the first trailer, it was clear Adele Lim’s feature film debut was going to resemble something along the lines of The Hangover meets Crazy Rich Asians. With Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as producers, Joy Ride was never going to be a high-brow comedy.
Which is maybe why it’s so surprising how emotionally resonant and moving Joy Ride is. You may very well find yourself getting a bit tearful, or like me, full on sobbing at this tale of friendship, family and… threesomes?
Audrey (Ashley Park) is the adopted daughter of two perfectly nice, white parents. As a kid, she becomes best friends with Lolo (Sherry Cola, hilarious), who punches a bully at the playground, forging a forever-bond between the two girls. As they age, their different personalities begin to show; Lolo is more artistic with a special affinity for sex-positive art while Audrey aspires to be a lawyer.
When Audrey is tasked with closing an important business deal in China, Lolo, Lolo’s cousin Deadeye (Sabrina Wu, the film’s MVP) and Audrey’s former college roommate Kat (Stephanie Hsu) tag along. They eventually end up on an epic journey across their motherland in search for Audrey’s birthmother.
The way in which Lim and writers Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao mix superb jokes and the more emotional beats of the story is dizzying. Joy Ride is such a perfect blend of laughs and tears; everything feels genuine and organic, the laughs come easy and often, but they never undermine the heart of the film.
The film is ultimately about family, the one we choose and the one we don’t. Audrey is initially hesitant to look for her birth mother and is only convinced by Lolo after the businessman Audrey is trying to get to sign some papers, expresses interest in her heritage and family history. Audrey’s journey to find where she belongs in the world, to understand her place in it, isn’t exactly new ground for filmmakers, but Lim tells the story with staggering authenticity and honesty.
Of course, people won’t be able to stop talking about the naughtier elements of Joy Ride. Remember when Olivia Wilde said female pleasure was at the centre of Don’t Worry Darling, but it ended up just meaning Harry Styles went down on Florence Pugh a lot in the film? Joy Ride actually delivers on that promise: female pleasure is the only thing that matters in the sex scenes in Joy Ride. Lim’s film is unashamedly horny and sexual, and all the better for it.
Although a full-frontal shot of a tattooed vagina might be the film’s most outrageous moment, it’s not the one that leaves the biggest impression. In a heartbreaking scene, Audrey notes how she could have been “the smart girl” instead of “the Asian girl”. This is potent stuff for anyone who belongs to a minority or just anyone who was put in a box they didn’t want to be in.
Joy Ride is so powerful because it’s both universal and specific. It’s easy to relate to Audrey and Lolo’s tumultuous friendship, but Lim also shines light on a specifically Asian-American experience. Rather than avoid talking about, or walking on, eggshells around the cultural differences and issues, Joy Ride tackles them head on and with a lot of humour. Look past the raunchy surface of Joy Ride and you’re met with a provocative, intimate look at growing-up between two cultures.
There’s not always enough time to develop all of the character, but thanks to the bright, brilliant performances from the central foursome, Joy Ride is 2023’s answer to The Hangover and that’s a compliment of the highest order. Adele Lim asserts herself as the next directing force to be reckoned with.
Joy Ride is in UK cinemas 4 August.