The title of “Maineland,” Miao Wang’s new documentary, is a pun whose awkwardness seems deliberate. It combines a reference to the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China, with the name of a sparsely peopled American state. The visual contrast between the two places is striking, and symbolic of the cultural differences that are the film’s subject.
The China that Ms. Wang depicts is a megalopolis of gleaming skyscrapers and breakneck economic growth. Maine moves at a slower pace. It’s a landscape of woods and quiet lakes, with a few buildings nestled among the hills, notably the dormitories and classrooms of Fryeburg Academy, a private school founded in 1792.
As the school’s admissions director explains during a trip to China to interview applicants, Fryeburg, which has both boarding and day students, depends on the tuition paid by the parents of foreign students. In the past, those pupils (and that money) came mostly from Japan and South Korea, but since the end of the 2008 economic crisis, China has emerged as a leading exporter of ambitious teenagers from affluent families.
Two of them — Harry and Stella — are the focus of Ms. Wang’s astute and absorbing film. Their time at Fryeburg changes them in subtle ways. They adjust to some degree to life in America and to the individualistic ethos of American education, but the experience also affirms their sense of Chinese identity. They arrive carrying the baggage of parental expectations, and assert their own contrary desires and ambitions in a spirit of negotiation and compromise rather than rebellion.
Ms. Wang, whose previous feature is the sensitive and elliptical “Beijing Taxi” (2010), is less interested in explaining than in listening and observing. “Maineland” takes up a large and complicated set of topics — the global economy, the shifting relations between East and West, the commodification of American education — and addresses them with understated delicacy. Harry and Stella and their friends may be part of an important social and demographic trend, but they’re also kids: shy, smart, silly, thoughtful and self-absorbed.
Their interactions with the Mainers at Fryeburg are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes comical, as efforts at cross-cultural communications tend to be. It’s sometimes hard to judge how successfully the Chinese students have been integrated into the daily life of the school. They tend to stick together, and to be regarded with a curiosity that sometimes verges on suspicion. A sign in a common area of one building declares it an English-only zone, which could be interpreted both as an encouragement to develop social and language skills and as an alienating, hostile gesture.
But good will and hard work are the prevailing values of “Maineland.” The portmanteau title maps out a patch of common ground defined by the understanding that education is a path to worldly success. It can be more than that, of course, and the movie hints at complications that are all the more intriguing for remaining largely unstated. One of the dogmas of American schooling is the importance of critical thinking, a slogan dutifully cited by Chinese applicants to Fryeburg in their interviews.