Delightful docu “The Grace Lee Project” chronicles the eponymous helmer’s quest to discover why so many Asian-American women share her name — and whether they really embody the boringly “nice” racial stereotype she herself has always loathed. Trivial-sounding hook manages to float a funny but complex meditation on identity, ethnicity and cultural expectations that should be as accessible to teens as adults. Programmers for general as well as Asian-focused fests should take a look; ditto broadcasters and educators.
Without revealing much of her own history, Lee makes it clear she’s always been annoyed/intimidated by the existence of so many other G.L.’s. (Prenom is particularly popular in Chinese and Korean-American communities for its associations with both Christianity and all-time WASP goddess Grace Kelly.)
Interviewing various strangers who once knew a Grace Lee, she finds their recollections all too often fit a pattern: The generic Grace is gentle, sweet, a study freak, quiet, liked by all — and then forgotten by all. In short, a walking cliche of model minority politeness and passivity. Helmer has always felt the pressure to be like these “Super-Asian perfect people.” Setting up a Web site to access other G.L.’s, she’s deluged by name-alikes worldwide, but particularly in California (there are 314 in Los Angeles alone). Those she tracks down include several of the dreaded all-around good girls, leaving her thrilled to discover one who nearly burned down her high school. (This reformed bad girl, however, declines to be interviewed.)
But other exceptions to the stereotype soon turn up. There’s a Los Angeles car dealer with her own TV commercial and a TV news reporter in Hawaii, both likeable extroverts. A 14-year-old Silicon Valley girl is a multi-talented overachiever, but also a baby Goth who hand-crafts voodoo dolls of people who irk her.
Most impressive of all is an 88-year-old Detroit woman who dared an interracial marriage decades ago, becoming a major (and still-active) activist figure in the local African-American community despite her own different ethnicity.
Very cleverly packaged docu utilizes animation, wry graphics and other unexpected diversions to keep things hopping.