“You know why I thrive in the U.S.?” high school student Stella asks her mother on a trip home to China. “Because I don’t study!” Stella is one of many Chinese students whose parents have chosen to enroll her in Maine’s Fryeburg Academy, a private school an hour northwest of Portland. These well-to-do parents anticipate a future where being conversant in American English and American life proves vital to success; one describes the teens studying abroad as “the future elite.” Miao Wang’s breezy documentary Maineland follows Stella Xinyi Zhu and Harry Junru He from China to Maine, observing their encounter with America — and the roster of students that Fryeburg has for years been recruiting from around the world — from a respectful remove.
We glimpse their classes, their sessions with guidance counselors, their outings with friends, trips to a carnival and to the prom. Well, Stella goes to the prom; Harry, a little shy, does not. Director Wang suggests Harry’s loneliness in America but doesn’t dwell on it. He studies, plays his piano and discusses, in voice-over, how this country has inspired him to consider the question of his own individuality — always while honoring the traditions of his homeland. Stella, meanwhile, makes so many friends that her mother asks, on that trip back home, whether she shouldn’t now focus on her schoolwork, now that she’s proven herself socially adept.
The portraiture here isn’t especially intimate, and Wang sometimes chooses to devote full minutes to the study, in Maine and in Harry’s Guangzhou, of fairs and amusement parks. Director of photography Sean Price Williams catches the strange beauty of the Tilt-a-Whirl. But what’s memorable here is the students’ talk of their families’ economic anxieties, of their own hope to make enough money while young that their own children will feel financially secure, of the ways that American and Chinese life diverge. There’s much talk of happiness, often in voice-over, over footage of the kids making s’mores at a campfire or scudding across a lake in a boat. One student notes that the Chinese way of happiness involves securing your future first before letting yourself savor life; in America, they find young people eager to savor youthfulness itself.
That relaxed joyfulness is balanced by the challenges of the United States: weight gain, being stereotyped, the emphasis on fun with friends rather than preparation for all the life ahead. You can see, over the school year Wang documents, the kids’ certainties about what matters most eroding — and, in Harry’s case, also hardening, especially as he discovers that America is not the land of happiness he had always imagined. Here he has just as hard a time making friends or talking to girls as he did back home. “You can change your coat,” he says, “but on the inside you’re the same.”