Miao Wang's latest documentary follows two Chinese high-school students to New England. Info
Watching Miao Wang's third feature-length documentary, Maineland (2017), conjures a certain nostalgia in the dual chronicle of its two international students, Stella and Harry, from mainland China (Guangzhou), who relocate to rural Maine to pursue greater social and scholastic opportunities. The gauzy, sun-streaked lens of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (of Alex Ross Perry's films) further instills innocent reminders of the political contest between Obama and Romney in 2012, when Wang's filming began.
What's so refreshingly engaging about Maineland, the first of two Cinematheque films premiering in Madison as part of the Asian-American Media Spotlight, is a matter of perspective. While the facts of the prologue are established by Fryeburg Academy Admissions Director Christopher Hibbard about the private school's financial viability and influx of Chinese student populations in the past decade, Wang's focus is predominantly on first-hand accounts of the immigrant experience, their evolving impressions of the United States, and definitions of "home." These sentiments are no doubt reflected in Wang's own status as a Beijing-born filmmaker currently working in New York.
In profiling Stella and Harry, Wang seeks a balance of personalities, with Stella's extroversion leading her to more social activities at Fryeburg like cheerleading, and the more pensive Harry seeking solace in musical performance. (Wang occasionally lets his solo piano rehearsals tenderly set the mood for montages.) Both students initially share an uncertainty about assimilating into American life and society due to cultural differences and the greater emphasis on individualism in the American education system. However, as the documentatary proves through interactions with their native English-speaking peers and instructors, Stella and Harry's contributions to classroom conversation are singular and valuable, rippling through the community in Western Maine near the Vermont border.
Wang traverses the most emotionally rich and psychologically complex territory in the film's latter half, as the students wrestle with the tethering expectations of family members. Even separated by thousands of miles, Stella, for example, feels obligated to honor her parents' practical advice about studying business (as her parents are business owners themselves), which distracts from her own idealistic desire to become an elementary art teacher. While sections of the film can sometimes feel scattered, it's clearly the intention to accurately mirror the mindsets of two teens torn between priorities. Even more broadly, Maineland's personal insights into immigration make for a most welcome addition to the plethora of documentaries on public and private education, like Waiting For "Superman" (2010), that have emerged this decade. —Grant Phipps