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Actress Emma Galbraith explains why romantic teen comedies matter

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As Emma Galbraith sees it, every teen movie is about being in between. Playing the role of the titular middle girl in a new independent film set in Galveston and Austin, Galbraith plays the sarcastic and aimless Angie, a half-Chinese, half-white teenager drawn in part from Galbraith’s own experience of growing up biracial in the Texas. At 19, Galbraith is an actor and youth organizer for climate justice and housing in Austin.

Between girls explores Angies’ sense of in-between race and ethnicity in her predominantly white Episcopalian high school, but also in her family: after the divorce of her white mother and Chinese father, she feels bad in its place in both homes. When Angie begins to secretly sleep with school sweetheart Liam – who has a girlfriend, a blonde Instagram influencer named Sheryl – the shame felt at her insistence on keeping it a secret is burning.

Strong play, nuanced writing, charming art direction and inventive editing make the film effortlessly funny, dynamic and sweet, without falling into the cliché. Written and directed by Mei Makino, Between girls won the AAudience Award at SXSW and most recently screened at Austin Asian American Film Festival. It is now seeking distribution. This month, Galbraith sat down with the Observer to talk about teen movies and Texas.

Texas Watcher: Tell me about the filming in Galveston and working with the Austin movie scene.

Mei Makino grew up in Galveston, so she had a very personal connection to this city. Galvestons so beautiful, unreasonably beautiful, so it was so nice to be on set every day. We shot exteriors in Galveston. It was beautiful and it’s such a cinematically underrated place. All these beautiful bright colors. It’s on this island, which I also think is very symbolic for Angie, because she feels very isolated, just surrounded by this beautiful world that she can’t really make sense of. The shooting in Austin was great too. There’s this tight-knit community here, many of whom know what it’s like to shoot as a passionate project on a very low budget.

How important is it to anchor this film in local places?

Between girls is such a Texan movie. All the talents were local. There is an understanding of what it’s like to be raised in Texan culture. Angies’ struggles are very relevant, but I will say this: The condition of Asian Americans in Texas is its own business. It’s specific. I can’t speak for William Magnuson, who plays Liam, but I know in our conversations there has been a lot of talk about how the particular race of toxic masculinity in Texas is its own thing.

What kind of conversations have taken place between you and Mei about the specific experience of Asian Americans and being biracial in Texas?

Being biracial is interesting. When you do not know your roots well, you have the impression of floating. You are floating between worlds and there is a very specific type of cultural knowledge that comes with the feeling of grounding. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time, being born here and living most of my life here in Austin. When half of your family lives in another country across the ocean, it is a very interesting life experience. There is a philosophy of: Biracial people are not half and half, but both. There is certainly a feeling that Angie does not fit into either of the two halves; there is no place for his Asian side in the white space and there is no place for his white side in the Asian space. It makes learning about your culture really difficult because these structures weren’t necessarily built for that balance. The process of figuring out how to experience this has to do with liberating notions of binaries. Free yourself from the notion that you have to be confined to one or the other. The world was meant to sink, it wasn’t meant to be honeycomb.

Why do you think coming-of-age films can address issues of race, gender, sexuality and class so well? What do you say to people who think teen movies are shallow?

I think teen movies have always been in between. These are places where pain, pains of growth, of transition can be expressed. Being a teenager is messy and smelly and awkward and rude and confusing, and unresolved. The more films that feature teenagers are made, the more people feel seen and understood in a way that is not superficial. My personal opinion is that the superficial branding of a lot of teen movies is misogyny. But there is also something to be said about great writing that is honest about the teenage experience and honest about how repugnant that’s a lot of time. Because you are an insect and you molt. You leave your cocoon, your exoskeleton, and it’s not pretty.

The writing of female characters in this film goes against the norm that young female characters are often written or treated. Spoilers here: Angie ends up befriending Liam’s girlfriend Sheryl, someone you’d expect to hate. What was the intention there?

I love the Angie-Sheryl friendship. It’s one of my favorite things in the movie. He takes a step back from the competition aspect, this competition between women. It’s not a real thing. There is a specific point in Between girls: What does it really mean to be a woman supporting another woman? And on top of that, recognize that people make a bunch of mistakes all the time and are imperfect but still deserve love. I think the easiest way to do it, which Between girls it was just to give them the opportunity to talk.

You can tell, how much Liam tries to keep them from talking, how this narrative serves the man.

It’s almost as if divide and conquer is a very popular strategy for those in power to get others to do what they want them to do. I’m just saying, I’m just saying (laughs). Honestly, Angie and Sheryl are unionizing a bit, but Sheryl didn’t know it.

It was literally as easy as having a relationship with each other. When it comes to organizing it is so important to have conversations with the people around you. Most of the time, people don’t know what power structures they exist in until they just have a conversation. Most of the time it’s gossip with someone they work with or something. Just air your stuff, because you never know what opportunities there are to take back some of the power that has been taken from you.

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