Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2017: Maineland

Kris Rothstein

I love documentaries about teens. Young people are growing, learning and changing so quickly, encountering many experiences for the first time and are not yet jaded or set in their opinions, so their stories usually have an intensity and frankness.

Maineland is a classic fish out of water story. What happens when wealthy Chinese teens go to an American boarding school? The film focuses on two students - Harry, an awkward boy with interests in music and politics, and exuberant Stella, who is drawn towards teaching young children but who is expected to take over the large family business. They are already thoughtful and confident, if naive, at their interviews in China. Freyburg academy, like many small American private/boarding schools, is having trouble finding enough students who can both afford their fees and are looking for the traditional prep school experience. The solution is to recruit many foreign students. And the highest number now come from China.

I have heard and seen numerous stories about emigration or travel to America, and in almost every one, the new resident sombrely reports that America is nothing like what they imagined. And, in many cases, they say that if they had actually known anything real about the idealized country, they would not have come. I don't think Harry or Stella (from enormous Chinese cities) could have imagined rural Maine. They don't seem to experience culture shock though, as they are solidly prepared to take advantage of whatever opportunities they are given. They are reflective and thoughtful, and aware of the concept of sacrifice. They are excited to leave home but each says that family will always remain the most important thing for them.

The notable quality of Miao Wang's film is its impressionist nature, its languid and dreamy representation of teen life. Wang wanted to express an emotional journey, she said in a Q&A after the film, so while we do see certain rites of passage like dances and football games and graduation, for the most part the audience isn't guided through any chronology or specific locations. There are some direct interviews but mostly we see the teens in their environment, alone or with friends, sometimes in a class or with a counselor. There are also plenty of scenes with other Chinese or foreign students - learning about documentary filmmaking or critical thinking - without the main characters appearing at all. These other characters are not particularly introduced or explained which allows us to imagine who they are and figure out things about them just from the few times they appear on screen.

Wang does not tell us how to interpret what we are seeing. A few moments show the difficulties faced - as when a staff member, looking into a room of three Asian boys, says she just can't tell them apart. Ouch. And it is telling that the Chinese students are almost always together, speaking Chinese, despite the fact that we are told how popular Stella is and how she has made friends with all kinds of students. Maineland works both a funny, poignant and hopeful personal story and a bigger tale about how Americans and Chinese might relate to each other.

Watch the trailer. Plays again on Saturday, October 7, 2017 at 6:30 PM International Village 9.



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