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'Inbetween Girl' filmmaker Mei Makino's Texas talent, from camera kid to SXSW star

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Emma Galbraith stars as Angie in "Inbetween Girl," a film from Austin director Mei Makino.

Mei Makino wrote the story she needed growing up. “I am such a fan of Y.A. books and coming-of-age movies,” the Austin filmmaker said, but the protagonists of that genre often can be quirky in just the “right” way. Sometimes, it would be nice to see a little awkwardness. A little honesty. 

"A lot of life, and a lot of being a teen, is about struggling,” Makino said. 

So, she wrote and directed the film “Inbetween Girl,” which made its world premiere during South by Southwest’s online film fest festival on March 18.  

“Inbetween Girl” is the story of Angie Chen (played by Austin performer Emma Galbraith), a teen artist from Galveston who’s stuck in the middle of a whole lot. Her dual Chinese and white heritages pull from both directions, as do her separated parents. Angie’s not quite sure what the future holds, but she’s quickly outgrowing high school life. And that’s before she ends up in a secret love triangle with school hunk Liam (William Magnuson) and queen bee Sheryl (Emily Garrett).  

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The film marks a fabulous feature debut at the premier local film fest for Makino, an alum of the University of Texas’ Department of Radio-Television-Film.  

“Austin really made me who I am in a lot of ways,” she told the American-Statesman right before SXSW kicked off. And the community helped make the film itself; "Inbetween Girl” was produced with the help of a grant from the Austin Film Society. 

Like Angie's story, Makino’s filmmaking journey also started with a girl and a camera. 

“Growing up, I recorded a lot,” she said. “I made a lot of movies on my own. Making has been such a therapy for me.”  

She went to Michelle Voss’ Film Camp for Girls in Austin at 17 and learned the specifics of filmmaking — the director of photography's job, what a producer does, how independent films work.  

Makino wanted the character of Angie to have a creative outlet, too, which is why she’s an artist in the film: “That was her therapy that she went to in low moments, to make herself feel better, and to pull her out of things.” 

“Growing up, I recorded a lot,” Mei Makino, seen here in Galveston, said. “I made a lot of movies on my own. Making has been such a therapy for me.”

The way “Inbetween Girl” infuses Angie’s art into the film, as drawn by Makino’s childhood friend Larissa Akhmetova, is irresistibly imaginative. The character’s illustrations come to life at times to reflect her mood, and Instagram likes are rendered with a hand-drawn quality on the screen. Family snapshots are intercut with the filmed narrative a couple times. Angie delivers confessionals through a grainy Hi8 camera. It all creates a vibrant, mixed-media collage vibe. 

As a kid, Makino remembers seeing Akhmetova’s art displayed at her local Hobby Lobby because it had won an award.  

"I was like, ‘This girl is phenomenal,’” Makino said. “We actually became friends when I was in fifth grade, and she was in fourth grade. We made tons of movies together, and she was always drawing and coming up with comic book characters.” 

That chance friendship spurred a creative partnership spanning from elementary school hijinks to an adulthood movie premiere. Makino asked her friend to work on "Inbetween Girl” and at first, Makino said, Akhmetova didn’t realize how big a part of the film her work would become. But the illustrations ended up crucial to Angie’s persona, humor and desires. 

“There were a lot of moments that weren't ‘playing’ in earlier cuts,” Makino said. “But then when we added the art, it added that cherry on top that really made it sing.” 

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More old friends joined the director on the journey. Producer Matt Stryker, editor Connor Pickens and cinematographer Ivy Chiu were all former classmates on the Forty Acres. Even Angie’s video diaries were a blast from Makino’s past. 

“The vlogs were shot on my Samsung Hi8 camera from when I was 12, another camera that I used with Larissa to make movies with,” Makino said. “At first, I wasn't even thinking about doing it. But then I ran into a friend from middle school who was like, ‘Do you still have the camera?’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, I think I do.’ And I dug it up, and I was like playing with it, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I should so use this for the movie.’” 

That was a late-game decision, she said. While working on finishing touches for “Inbetween Girl” a couple months ago, Makino said the Hi8 let her go out and film footage she needed without a crew. "Once we decided to do that, I very much felt like a kid in a candy store,” she said. 

"Inbetween Girl," starring Emma Galbraith and William Magnuson, premiered as part of SXSW Online.

“Inbetween Girl” is infused with a strong sense of place. Old Galveston houses grace the frames, and island culture is key to Angie’s high school social world. Makino shot much of the film in her hometown, but it wasn’t always the plan. She originally had no strong setting in mind and planned to shoot in Austin just as a matter of convenience. A mentor encouraged her to find a unique location, and then a chance meeting with “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins further sparked inspiration. 

“He was like, ‘Locations and casting, that is like the main thing you need to focus on,’” Makino said. She scouted out Galveston and it “just kind of seemed perfect.” The crew used her parents’ house during filming, and the family’s neighbors were hospitable.  

“Also, it just seemed a little bit more fitting for Angie's journey, what she was going through," Makino said. “The school she goes to isn't quite as liberal as some of the schools in Austin." Still, some scenes were shot in the capital, including interiors like Angie’s bedroom and some footage at Givens Park. 

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When it came to the story, Makino said she did not have the concept of being “in between” in mind when writing: “I mean, I didn't have a title for it until after the rough draft, when I sat back and I was like, 'OK, what is what is this about?’” 

It makes sense that Makino so deftly created a story of growing up. She’s spent plenty of time around teenagers telling their own stories through film. 

“After college, I taught filmmaking with Film Camp for Girls and also Creative Action," she said. “And I think having to work with kids, it made me a better person. … You remember how smart and funny and hilarious they are. And I think that was, you know, I was teaching during the time I wrote the first draft of ‘Inbetween Girl,’ and just being around kids was so helpful for my writing.” 

Makino kept a mantra on a sticky note during the production: It doesn't have to be original, it just has to be authentic. Her young cast helped her stick to those guns, she said, doing improv during some takes. It’s a tricky tightrope to portray teenage sexuality with honesty and respect, and what the viewer sees in the film — the flirting, the awkwardness, the flirty awkwardness — is “just all them, and credit to them,” Makino said.  

"Inbetween Girl” is still looking for distribution, but it’s been met with acclaim from both critics and viewers. The film won the SXSW audience award for the Visions category, which is made up of films from "audacious, risk-taking artists in the new cinema landscape who demonstrate raw innovation and creativity in documentary and narrative filmmaking.”   

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Makino, who has spent a lot of time lately with her family in Galveston, struck a chord with her film fest fave. And the story that would have made her feel better as a teen still has a lot to teach people today — including its creator. In a memorable scene late in the film, Angie and her father try to come to an understanding about each other after a blowout fight.

“I think (Angie’s) writing a lot of stories in her head about what her parents want from her and what her parents expect from her,” she said, "especially being Asian American and her dad being this very successful scientist. … I mean, a lot of that is pulled from my own life. (Makino is half Japanese and half white.) I think there was always some confusion for me when watching media, because Asian parents are often very one-dimensional and very steady, steady, steady, which totally true — like, my dad wants me to do well. But I think there's a warmness and a kindness and a want for your kids to be happy and to do what they want. That was missing for me in a lot of those representations.

"Getting to write that scene was extremely therapeutic for me.”