Documentary Review: Cultures don’t quite clash, or connect in “Maineland”

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“Maineland” is an underachieving documentary about over-achieving Chinese exchange students at a remote prep school in Maine.

It’s a culture-clash story where cultures don’t truly clash, where “America” doesn’t so much rub off on kids from Chinese megacities relocated to the boondocks, as intrigue them — the way science students peer at a petri dish under a microscope.

The two children of Chinese affluence followed here — Stella and Harry — may get a taste of prom, join the cheer squad and “boldly” take on the story and symbolism of “the man and the tank,” the lone protester who stood in front of a Chinese tank at Tienanmen Square for a student project.  But “America” doesn’t make much more than a superficial impact on them or their fellow exchange student classmates, director Miao Wang suggests.

And they make no impact at all, in the film’s eyes, on the locals and other U.S. nationals who are their classmates at venerable Fryeburg Academy.

Wang makes what plays like an official Chinese government sanctioned portrait of this diaspora of affluence — upwardly mobile families, stressed by their place in capitalism (marriages are strained or broken), sending their kids abroad to American prep schools for a leg up in the coming workforce.

The schools? They desperately need that overseas tuition money.

The families of these kids want them well-rounded, in the top tier of their generation, kids who might give them an insider’s edge in the American marketplace should they be able to stay on after prep school and college.

“When China is stronger, they’ll be back,” one father suggests. Meanwhile, their kids can indulge in the preoccupations of the children of families who have “made it.”

In the case of Harry, that means he can dream of working in music, composing, and not have to fret about pointing at a career guaranteed to give him a job. He’s fascinated by “capitalism” and its differences with Chinese “collectivism.”

Harry’s the introvert here, classmate Stella is the extrovert — bubbly, discovering boys, popular and cute. Her experience is a little broader than his, her hope is to continue to a U.S. college and maybe take a role in the family business in the U.S. market.

But the Chinese students are a clannish bunch, all the way through school, Wang’s film suggests. She confines her movie to the lives the kids leave behind, their families back home, and to the school grounds itself. Establishing shots of how tiny Fryeburg is, backwoods almost, lead to only one scene of the kids doing anything to interact with the community.

That scene? The Chinese kids all gather for meal at a Chinese restaurant where they, as they do when they’re not in class, speak Chinese to each other.

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The most revealing scenes to an American viewer might be the gathered recruitment team from Fryeburg, sizing up the often gauche nouveau riche applicants with barely-hidden eye-rolls of how this kid or that one used his or her interview to talk about how he or she wants to make a “bucket of gold.”

The teachers don’t come off as elite so much as jaded, noting how the influx of Chinese is no different from the flood of Japanese kids when Japan was briefly ascendant, and Korean kids who still show up in numbers large enough to keep Fryeburg in the black.

A few classroom scenes capture a hint of teacher-xenophobia, but decades into this “import much of our student body” strategy keep the tactless cultural stereotyping to a minimum.

“Maineland” is informative in the most basic ways. But the big hole in Wang’s film is in failing to capture the disconnect, the true culture shock of children of neon bedecked skyscrapers, mansions and coddling parents packed off to the backwoods of Maine.

And the second biggest hole is missing the frison that must have been experienced by both sides in this exchange.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, smoking

Cast: Stella, Harry

Credits:Directed by Miao Wang. An Abramorama release.

Running time: 1:30

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