Miao Wang’s second feature-length documentary Maineland follows “parachute students”—a term referring to a massive influx of well-to-do students from China enrolling in prestigious private schools throughout the United States of America. In China, we watch a handful of students and how their typical school day and social lives play out. Intercut with interviews of what they know and what they think they know about the US as well as the reasons they want to study abroad and what they believe can be gained from such an experience. Flying to Fryeburg, Maine, Wang zeroes in on two students, Stella and Harry ready to embark on their three-year odyssey of academic studies, cultural integration, and full of big dreams. The audience then watches, with a fly on the wall intimacy, as their preconceived notions, some simple misconceptions, others exaggerated to the point of incredulity, of both their homeland and their new home are morphed, changed, or done away with altogether.
“…a massive influx of well-to-do students from China enrolling in prestigious private schools throughout the United States…”
Stella Xinyi Zhou, from Shanghai, takes to the new freedom and social hierarchy straight away. She hits up a few parties and makes friends easily, eventually joining the cheerleading team. Harry Junnru He, from Guangzhou, is more introverted, spending his free time locked away in his room playing video games. When he feels completely overwhelmed, he plays the piano, a skill he has honed his entire life, to calm his nerves. Fryeburg Academy’s focus on critical thinking proves a challenge for both of them, as China’s educational system is more rote memorization of times and dates of huge events.
Harry and Stella, both from urban environments, are taken aback by the rural landscape of the academy and find themselves enjoying hiking and similar outdoor activities. Comparing the way Harry and Stella assumed the US students would act versus the studious but laid-back attitude of their new friends, provides some great levity. The footage Wang obtains is raw and authentic, putting equal emphasis on the academic and personal side of things. Stella and Harry are compelling figures and how they find their voice and the joy that such freedom affords them leaps off the screen to warm your heart. They do have issues verbalizing everything they feel or think about the situations at hand, especially when they get stressed out, but it only makes them more empathetic and relatable, as words escape even the best of us at times.
“…plays host to breathtaking vistas of Maine’s natural beauty, and even the interviews are lit in such a way to make them look as pleasing as possible.”
Wang balances things well enough but her choice of director of photography, Sean Price Williams, proves to be inspired. Maineland plays host to breathtaking vistas of Maine’s natural beauty, and even the interviews are lit in such a way to make them look as pleasing as possible. The score though, often overpowers the dialogue, making it very difficult to hear what is said. Unlike the pacing issue, which with so much time and effort put into the creation of Maineland, is understandable, this is a constant hindrance. Starting with the first voiceover of the first student interviewed, she gets out a few sentences before the music quiets down so the audience can actually make it out. Vital information about the leads’ thoughts or feelings is being missed out on because the music beats on and on much louder than it ought to be.
The movie hits a wall though, as after they acclimate and become self-assured, repetitiveness seeps in. Interview either Harry or Stella, maybe both, about school, how things differ compared to home, and if friends are helping, rinse, repeat. With a 90 minute runtime, shaving off 20 or so of those, all from the middle, would improve things considerably. Thankfully, the pace regains its footing in the last third, wherein Stella and Harry find their path, with one staying in the States and the other feeling more comfortable back home.
Maineland runs too long, and the music often drowns out valuable information. However, Stella and Harry are wonderfully intriguing leads and watching them grow more confident, learn what they truly want, and then achieve such is heartfelt enough that the movie is worth your time.
Maineland (2018) Directed by Miao Wang. Starring Stella Xinyi Zhou, Harry Junru He.