Everyone in Maineland seems aware that there’s a role they’re meant to play. Director Miao Wang’s exceptionally knotty feature documents two unrelated Chinese teenagers, Stella and Harry, as they go abroad to Maine’s private Fryeburg Academy to attend high school. In China, with their families, both teens play the dutiful student: They agree with their parents that their US studies are essentially a professional endeavor—promising that their high school graduations will be followed by business degrees and then by work in an international sector. One of the fathers puts it bluntly: “I want Stella to integrate with Americans.” But these comments, from all involved, are various lengths away from the truth—in one early scene, we see the would-be international students getting coached before prospective interviews with Fryeburg representatives, as if only to confirm that everything happening before the camera is being performed with an eye toward what audiences might be impressed by. The students express themselves more truthfully in voice-over narration (the editor is Elizabeth Rao, the sound design is by Brendon Anderegg), as well as in conversations at the school (Stella reveals that she would prefer to pursue a career in education). Wang’s film doesn’t impose much of a narrative on the few years it spends checking in with these kids, but instead just lets all these relationship dynamics, generational chasms, and cultural gaps develop via dialogue (in conversations seen or staged for the camera) and the narration (performed mostly by Stella and Harry themselves). What’s fascinating is the way that you can chart the changes in everybody’s presentation, depending on where they are or who they’re talking to. Stella and Harry seem willing to reveal their private thoughts and dreams on film—they’re willing to play themselves, just so long as they’re not in front of their families while doing so.
In the very first scene, Stella discusses another performance entirely: the ones in the High School Musical  series, which have given her a romantic image of what America might be. That’s an image far removed from the school she’ll be attending in rural Maine—which means that the US is just another player failing to live up to their perceived role. The American students and teachers at Fryeburg, though seemingly well intentioned, only manage to confirm that. While accommodating on a technical level, they meet the foreign students with typical condescension: signs for “English-only common spaces,” classes that begin with “so where are you from” conversations, that whole routine. In a key moment, some of the international students—who admit that they mostly keep to themselves and feel separated from the larger student population—make a short documentary about how they’re perceived by the native Mainers. That student film is shown, in part, within Maineland, and it’s about what you’d expect: moderately articulate teenagers stumbling through the subject without saying much at all—certainly without investigating whether or not they, themselves, are part of the reason that the Chinese students feel so secluded. But even if they understood that, they probably wouldn’t say it. Like everybody else in this keen-eyed movie, they’ve got appearances to keep up.
THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OCCURS IN MAINE 9.14–17. FOR INFORMATION REGARDING FULL PASSES ($95-195), INDIVIDUAL TICKETS ($10), AND THE FESTIVAL SCHEDULE, SEE POINTSNORTHINSTITUTE.ORG/CIFF
MAINELAND SCREENS AT CIFF ON SUN 9.17 AT THE CAMDEN OPERA HOUSE. 3PM. FILMMAKER MIAO WANG IN ATTENDANCE. SCREENED EARLIER THIS YEAR AS PART OF IFFBOSTON (HAS NOT YET BEEN ANNOUNCED FOR GENERAL DISTRIBUTION).