Joy Ride begins with relaxing music and shots of white people enjoying the outdoors at a town called White Hills. We then quickly find a young Asian couple with their young daughter Lolo. Here, in this public park with swings and a slide, they don’t fit in. That is until they are greeted by a white couple with their adopted Asian daughter Audrey, as they ask if Audrey and Lolo could play together. After all, they pretty much are the only Asian people here… in the town called… White Hills. But writers Cherry T. Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao set the tone instantly. Lolo curses at a racist white boy and punches him in the face, and our perfect friendship between two Asian girls is born.
Years pass. Audrey (Ashley Park) has grown up to be a successful hard-working lawyer. Lolo (Sherry Cola), however, could not be more different. She’s an aspiring artist, and is a bit of a hot mess. But even so, they still remain childhood friends. When Audrey’s business trip to China crosses paths with an opportunity to find and meet her birth mother, she asks Lolo to assist her on the trip. Tagging along this road trip are Kat (Academy Award nominee Stephanie Hsu), Audrey’s college roommate turned Chinese soap actress, and Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), Lolo’s eccentric cousin with an interest in K-Pop music.
And of course the trip turns out to be as chaotic as you can imagine. Things go wrong, shenanigans ensue, and our four Asian friends are at the center of it all. Joy Ride is quite a ride indeed. It is every vulgar, nasty, boundary-pushing R-rated comedy you’ve ever seen, except it is put together on the screen with honesty, heart, and Asian pride. The result is one big Joy Fuck Club.
While most Hollywood R-rated comedies fall into the cynical mean-spiritedness of its characters, Joy Ride gives an incredible amount of space for Audrey, Lolo, Kat, and Deadeye to collide, speak their mind, be horny, do crazy shit, enjoy doing it, mess up, and regain their confidence again. Amidst the sleazy dialogue (and it’s as hilarious as it is filthy), the film manages to keep its story centered around messy people who get to be messy.
Director Adele Lim keeps the set pieces at a minimum, focusing more on character, clash of personalities, and banter. Action sequences can’t hold a candle to the rivalry between Lolo and Kat, as they fight to both be Audrey’s best friend, or Deadeye’s impulsive bursts about something she likes or dislikes. Meanwhile, as they throw slurs at each other in Mandarin, Audrey, our Asian-American who was born and raised by white parents, has no clue what they are saying. It is dramatic irony at its funniest, and it’s all thanks to the relentlessly funny script and the four performances in the cast.
Park, Cola, Hsu, and Wu are dynamite together on screen. They could not be more different from each other, yet the chemistry is seamless, effortless, and natural. The pop culture references, the sarcasm, the insults, they are all thrown so openly out into the world – you have to celebrate the amount of confidence radiating from the actors and Lim’s tone-precise direction.
But Lim and her writers haven’t forgotten about the story. Shenanigans aside, the film is still about a woman finding her birth mother. At the heart of Joy Ride lies an emotional story about the Asian diaspora and the blurred lines between identity and origin. Through one surprising twist in the second half, the film veers into much more nuanced territory that many films in the past would rarely explore – not that those films didn’t want to, but that the voices doing the storytelling weren’t there before.
Feeling like you’re stuck between the “Asian” and the “American” is not a new concept in mainstream comedies. Crazy Rich Asians touched on this back in 2018. But even so, those ideas are wrapped around the premise of a wedding, of having to impress your potential in-laws. With Joy Ride, much of the existential crises in Audrey resides in internal conflicts that are far too relatable for this Asian American, from feeling like you have to prove yourself at all times to just wanting to be known for your talents and passion rather than your background.
At one point, Audrey talks about how she would rather be known as “the funny one” in a group rather than “the Asian girl.” Perhaps that is the most beautiful thing about Joy Ride. The group dynamic amongst the four is of course reminiscent of other R-rated comedies. Animal House, American Pie, The Hangover, This Is The End, the list goes on. But here in Joy Ride, we are given a predominantly Asian cast. Now, we get to see these characters for who they really are.
Producer Seth Rogen and the folks over at Point Grey and Lionsgate have done something special this time, by keeping the fundamental laughs of a raunchy comedy while giving the space for Asian voices to just be messy and naughty and thirsty and lovely as they are. It’s one thing to see a comedy that can be so nasty yet so sex-positive and empowering. It’s another thing entirely to see all the characters in the comedy to be portrayed by Asian actors. I want Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, and Sabrina Wu together in 10 more movies.
Lionsgate will release Joy Ride only in theaters on June 23, 2023.