Director Maio Wang’s absorbing and visually extraordinary film, which opens for a short theatrical run in New York City on Friday, follows admissions director Christopher Hibbard from Fryeburg to Shanghai and Guangzhou, China, to interview prospective students.
Hibbard discusses his PowerPoint presentation to prospective students and their families. Fryeburg is a grades 9-12 (plus postgraduate year) school of some 650 students, 500 which are day students. The school used to get its main influx of international students from Japan, then Korea. But since the 2008 economic crises, the school is seeking to enroll 12 to 15 Chinese students for each class, he says.
The visual impact of the two populous and booming Chinese cities, as filmed by Wang’s cameras, is stunning. The contrast with leafy, pastoral Fryeburg is not lost on the film’s audience or the Chinese students who will matriculate to the academy.
The film focuses on two Chinese students accepted to the Maine school—Stella Xinyi Zhu and Harry Junru He.
Stella’s father is an entrepreneur who owns a factory that manufactures humidifiers and other small appliances, with many of them undoubtedly destined for export to the United States. The family lives in a large, well-appointed house in gated community in metropolitan Shanghai.
Harry seems to come from a family of more modest background. Both students’ parents have some trepidation about sending their children halfway across the world for high school, but are willing to pay what is undoubtedly a hefty tuition.
About 20 minutes into the film, Stella, Harry, and other international students arrive on the Fryeburg campus. They are soon initiated into that most American of physical education activities—dodgeball.
Harry is into mathematics and computer games, and is a bit gangly when it comes to activities such as soccer. He takes such American high school staples as woodshop and English, where the class is reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
Stella wants to become a teacher, but she is tugged by her parents’ desire that she study business. She asks her art teacher about an A-minus grade, but he assures her that it is not the final semester grade.
Stella finds it easy to make friends, including American students, by joining the cheer squad.
But as one teacher observes, the Asian-American students, which include those from China, Taiwan, and South Korea, tend to hang out with each other, including at their favorite Chinese restaurant in the Fryeburg area. Among the American foods the students try are pizza (school-cafeteria style) and funnel cakes (at a county fair).
Harry, speaking in his halting English, is capable of some keen observations. For his filmmaking class, he chooses the famous “Tank Man” who confronted the tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.
“Older people [in China] don’t think it’s a big deal,” Harry says. Americans may think the Chinese have no freedoms, he adds, “but if you open up all media, many people can’t differentiate between real and fake information.”
That observation comes sometime during the 2012-13 school year, well before Donald Trump’s frequent harping about “fake news.”
It appears that when Harry says “the system is very advanced,” but there is “plenty of awfulness, too,” he is talking about the United States generally.
“It’s not as full of happiness as I imagined,” Harry says.
Both Stella and Harry take to American values such as individualism without wanting to give up their Chinese identities.
It seems that the two international students entered Fryeburg as sophomores. The documentary catches up with them more intermittently in their later years at the school, but the cameras are around when they apply to college (in the United States for both), attend the senior prom (at least one of them), and when they graduate.
And the cameras are there when, with their Asian friends, Harry and Stella have that one last meal at their favorite Chinese restaurant in America.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.