The Grace Lee Project (documentary)

Grace Lee is an American-born girl of Korean parents who grew up in Columbia, Mo., and was one of only three Asian girls in her school. Of the other two, one was also named Grace Lee.

This was no crazy coincidence. As “The Grace Lee Project” demonstrates, there are thousands of Grace Lees in America. Now, Lee is common enough to be the Asian equivalent of Smith. But why Grace? And what, if anything, do all these Grace Lees have in common? What does it mean to be a “Grace Lee”?

Our filmmaker, the one from Missouri, sets out to answer these questions in this lightweight but watchable documentary. A private investigator discovers there are more than 3,000 Grace Lees nationwide, with heavy concentrations in California and New York, and through her own surveys of hundreds of her like-named sisters, Grace finds patterns.

The average Grace Lee is in her 20s, straight, born in America to Korean immigrants, college-educated, and described by all who know her as smart, nice and quiet. No one says “forgettable,” but that seems to be a common thread, too: Many people say they knew a Grace Lee in high school but have no idea what ever happened to her. As the filmmaker puts it, “Does any other name scream ‘Generic Asian Girl’ more than Grace Lee?”

She is thrilled to find a news story of a Grace Lee who tried to burn down her high school, only to discover that she failed at it, and that it may have been intense scholastic pressure to succeed that motivated her — making her a typical Grace Lee after all.

Then she locates a truly unusual Grace Lee, a Detroit octogenarian who married a black man and has been extremely active in the Black Power movement. This firecracker of a woman is beloved by her community, where she works constantly to improve the neighborhood despite being one of only a few Asians there. Truth be told, an entire documentary could be made about her exclusively.

But we move on. Our Grace finds two major reasons for the recurrence of the name in Korean-American families: the Christian influence, and a fondness for Grace Kelly. (Really! Why Grace Kelly? Who knows.)

She spends time with a 14-year-old Christian Grace Lee in Silicon Valley who maintains the image of a typical academically competitive Asian girl but unleashes her frustrations by drawing dark, bloody pictures. Another Christian Grace Lee is the youthful wife of a pastor who works especially with the congregation’s teens, urging them to remain chaste until marriage.

So what is the point? I’m not sure there is one. The film is sort of about Grace Lee’s search for her own identity, about what it means to be Grace Lee. But she mostly focuses on Grace Lees who don’t fit the stereotype, a series of unrelated people whose only connection is that they have the same name. Some of these vignettes are interesting, but they don’t comprise a unified, cohesive whole. The project could have been done a lot more — forgive me — gracefully.

B- (1 hr., 12 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for mild thematic material.)