SXSW Film Review: Maineland

From sea to shining sea: Chinese teens tackle American boarding school

As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, Chinese immigrants Stella and Harry have to navigate the ups and downs of life in an elite boarding high school in rural Maine.

The second feature documentary from director Miao Wang follows the two students from acceptance letter to graduation, exploring the oceanic rift of differences between two of the world’s superpowers. Turns out, being a teen in America is a little different from Stella’s pipe dreams of High School Musical. This immigrant story of two teens spreading their wings across the Pacific Ocean is particularly timely given the (nightmarish) policies being concocted in the current American government administration. “Foreigners think the Chinese are kind of deranged,“ explains one teenage girl.

Like most of the other Chinese “parachute students” at Freyburg Academy – an exponentially growing population that currently comprises the largest share of their students – both kids’ families believe that the golden ticket of opportunity is found in a Western education. An increase in multinational workplaces coupled with notoriously difficult Chinese college entrance exams are among many reasons why the adults are willing to shill out $50k a year for the academy. But it’s about more than high school studies.

Social interaction is both compelling and difficult for just about every teen, but throw language barriers and culture shock into the mix, and the situation is primed for possibilities across a spectrum of emotion. Exposing the cultural divide by juxtaposing students is a clever way to weave this tale. From the country song playing against a carnival scene while foreign students discuss their weight gain from eating the average American diet to the awkward booty dancing at prom, Wang offers a few chuckles as she subtly critiques our casual Western culture. Still, that’s where she could’ve dived deeper: Told primarily through observations of Stella and Harry’s new, real American lives with their peers and teachers, plus quite a bit of interview footage, the audience is left hoping for more of the nitty gritty emotional ramifications of such a big leap. That may well be, however, one of the exact cultural differences that Wang seeks to highlight in this film.

Perhaps Wang missed an opportunity to offer more pointed insight, but then again, we are talking about teenagers here. Aside from a fascinating glimpse into the lives of an expanding population of immigrant students, Maineland serves to remind audiences of the power, and beauty, in differences.


Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere
Sunday, March 12, 6:30pm, Alamo Lamar A
Wednesday, March 15, 5.45pm, Alamo Lamar A

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