First-time filmmaker Socheatu Poeuv’s New Year Baby is one of those intensely personal documentaries that works as much as a journey for the filmmaker as for the viewer. In this case, however, it’s a journey that’s sufficiently involving for the viewer to want to go along. Poeuv starts her film with a clever hook: the revelation one Christmas with her family in Dallas that her older sisters are not her sisters, but her cousins, and that her older brother is, in fact, her half-brother from her mother’s first marriage. “I felt like I didn’t know my family at all,” she notes, deciding to find out exactly how all this came to be.
The simple answer lies in her parents’ status as refugees from the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot’s attempts to create his “classless society” in Cambodia, but that’s merely the background. But even that background is something we hear very little about these days, and it’s hardly the whole story of her family’s convoluted lineage. It’s her trip to Cambodia with her family to fill in the gaps in her understanding of that history and her background that makes up the bulk of the film. Not only is the story itself interesting—and cleverly structured to reveal its secrets in a dramatic fashion—but her approach to the documentary form is heightened by the inclusion of splendid, allegorical animated sequences (by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger) that comment on and sometimes convey the action. An altogether beautifully made film, New Year Baby is a movie of unusual substance.