Maineland


This is a different kind of education.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Stella Xinyi Zhu, Harry Junru He, Christopher Hibbard. Directed by Miao Wang

 

I have long been fascinated by China and her ancient culture; a 2010 visit to the country merely whetted my appetite for more. Documentaries like this therefore pique my interest perhaps more than the average filmgoer.

There has been a massive influx of Chinese students attending American schools. Since 2008, the number has increased dramatically and as Chinese affluence has grown, private high schools and universities have found Chinese tuition fees to be in some cases vital to the survival of some of these schools.

Fryeburg Academy in Maine is one of the oldest high schools in the country having been founded in 1790. More than 160 students from China attend the school, living in a boarding facility on-campus. While the bulk of students are local, the school relies on the tuition and boarding fees to keep its doors open. Admissions director Christopher Hibbard goes on a recruiting drive in a variety of cities on the Chinese mainland. Chinese parents are eager to have their kids educated in the United States not only for prestige reasons but so that they can learn America culture, make contacts in America and one day hopefully do business in the United States. For their part, the students are eager for a different kind of education; Chinese schools tend to focus on rote memorization and on sometimes brutally hard examinations.

This documentary by Chinese émigré Miao Wang (Beijing Taxi) follows two students attending Fryeburg over their three-year academic career there. Stella is a vivacious, outgoing young lady from Shanghai who makes friends easily, has a brilliant movie star smile and had yearned to go to school in America ever since she’d seen High School Musical.

Harry, on the other hand, is more introverted. He comes from another large Chinese city – Guangzhou – which is like many Chinese cities full of gleaming skyscrapers and high-tech public transportation. He has a more introspective bent and doesn’t really socialize well. He prefers to retreat into the world of video games and when stressed, sits down to play the piano. If left to his own devices, he would want to be a music composer.

However, both of these kids have heavy expectations laid on them by their parents. They are not only expected to do well academically but their lives are pointed towards expanding the family financial fortunes, prestige and power. Everything else is secondary. Studying hard is second nature to them and the critical thinking that most decent American schools try to instill in their students is as foreign to them as hot dogs and county fairs.

It’s not just a cultural change the two encounter; that’s difficult enough but both are going from a cosmopolitan urban life to a slower-paced small town life. Fryeburg students are used to hiking, fishing and swimming as things to do; the many distractions of a big city just aren’t available to them.

What do the kids think about all this? It’s hard to say. Want doesn’t really do what you would call probing interviews with her subjects. She seems more content to be a fly on the wall and let them comment as they will. Like most Asian people, politeness is a way of life and it is decidedly impolite to criticize one’s hosts and so any negative feelings that the two visitors might have about their host country (and their native land for that matter) are largely held back. They do comment on some of the cultural differences between China and America but by and large, we really don’t know what the kids are thinking.

All right, but what about their fellow students and their teachers? The same problem exists there too. From what the film shows the Chinese students largely stick together and if they develop friendships with American students or students from other countries, it’s not shown here. It is understandable that the students in a foreign land would want to stick together with those from their own country – at least they have something in common – but we never get a sense as to whether the American students are urged to make the visitors feel at home, or whether they even want to. An extra five or ten minutes exploring the thoughts of those who are being visited would have been very welcome.

And in fact because of Wang’s style, we really don’t do much more than surface exploration of the situation. It’s all very superficial which doesn’t make for a great documentary. There’s some lovely cinematography of the beautiful Maine countryside as well as the futuristic Chinese cities but as much time as we spend with Stella and Harry we end up not knowing them all that well which is a bit unsettling. We do see that their attitudes towards their home country do undergo a change but we never get to see much about why that attitude changed and what their parents and siblings think about it. There’s certainly a lot of meat to be had in a documentary like this but sadly we are mostly served bone.

REASONS TO GO: It’s interesting to see American small town life through the eyes of a different culture.
REASONS TO STAY: We don’t really get to hear much about what people think about the various circumstances being presented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the US Department of Commerce, there were nearly 370,000 Chinese students in American high schools and universities in 2015, more than six times as many as were here in 2005 and bringing in roughly $11.4 billion into the US economy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: School Life
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sollers Point

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl


Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

Bet you can guess which one is the dying girl.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, Jon Bernthal, Katherine C. Hughes, Matt Bennett, Massam Holden, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Gavin Dietz, Edward DeBruce III, Natalie Marchelletta, Chelsea Zhang, Marco Zappala, Kaza Marie Ayersman, Hugh Jackman, Etta Cox, Nicole Tubbs. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Hollywood tends to churn out movies aimed at the teen market and why not; teens make a sizable chunk of their audience and even though they don’t necessarily go to movie theaters as often as they once did – many view movies via the internet or other sources – they still are an important economic factor to the studios. Indie films tend to be less teen-centric although that doesn’t mean that we don’t see coming of age films emerge from the ranks of the indies.

Greg (Mann) is just trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school without hitting a reef. He determines that the best way to avoid being picked on by a clique is to be part of all of them, at least to an extent. So he is friendly with everyone in a nondescript way; he’s carefully built up anonymity at his school. Everyone likes him, but nobody knows him and he wants to keep it that way.

He doesn’t have any friends per se except for Earl (Cyler) and even Earl he refers to as a co-worker. The two spend most of their time making short parodies of famous films with oddball titles and premises; The Godfather becomes The Sockfather; The 400 Blows becomes The 400 Bros and so forth. The two of them spend their lunch periods in the office of Mr. McCarthy (Bernthal), a history teacher who lets them watch movies in his office and is the only teacher they respect.

His parents aren’t the most ordinary on the block. His mom (Britton) mostly is, although she snoops around his stuff which irritates the hell out of him. His dad (Offerman), a college professor, mostly stays at home in a bathrobe, making unusual snacks of foreign delicacies that only Earl seems to appreciate. Neither one of them seem to be into telling him what to do, although his mom worries about his lack of friends. Nonetheless one day his mom badgers him to go spend some time with Rachel (Cooke) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Greg doesn’t really know Rachel at all but his mom insists so he reluctantly hangs out and to his surprise the two of them have a lot more in common than you might think and what was supposed to be a one-time chore for an hour or two becomes a regular thing. Some mistake the budding friendship for romance but as Greg says repeatedly in voice-over narration, this isn’t that kind of story. He allows her to watch his crappy movies and keeps her company while she suffers through her chemotherapy and depression. Greg though doesn’t really know how to handle the really emotional stuff and eventually alienates both Earl and Rachel as well as Madison (Hughes), a very pretty girl who is Rachel’s friend and seems intent on what Greg believes to be manipulating him but could just be a teenage girl with a crush on a guy that doesn’t normally attract girls like her. High school can be a real drag that way.

This movie probably generated the most buzz at Sundance earlier this year and it is for good reason; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is for coming of age films as (500) Days of Summer is to romantic comedies and that’s high praise indeed. While this film isn’t quite as innovative as the other, it has that same spirit and gives the conventions of a genre a slight twist to give the audience a fresh perspective of that type of film.

You could say that the situation is not unknown in coming of age movies and you’d be right. You could say that this film is full of indie cliches and rote characters and you’d be right on target. And yet still the movie manages to hold my attention and stick in my mind after the film had thoroughly unspooled, and that’s surprising; on paper it would seem like the kind of film I’d forget after enduring it. You don’t find many movies that defy characterization like that.

The young leads – Mann, Cyler and Cooke – all turn in strong performances and all of them show the ability to become big stars in the not-too-distant future. While in Mann’s case the character is given a ton of indie quirks, he manages to overcome the tendency to make him a cliche and instead imbues the character with authenticity. He reacts as a real teen would which is not always the way you would want him to. Greg makes mistakes as all people do but in particular teens who lack the life experience and perspective to make the right decision all the time. This is also true of Rachel and Earl as well.

Cooke as the dying girl refuses to be maudlin; she is terrified of what is to come but she’s also weary of the effects of her treatment. She isn’t a vain person by nature but when her hair falls out it affects her unexpectedly.

The supporting performances are also strong. Offerman is fatherly in a quirky sort of way; his character understands his son much better than Greg’s overly critical mom does even though when push comes to shove his mom has his back more than he realizes. Offerman is offbeat here but never overwhelmingly so and thus fits into the story like a glove. Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane in The Walking Dead, doesn’t play your typical high school teacher, tattooed and a fan of Pho but able to connect with his students in a meaningful way. Once again, Bernthal makes a character that could easily become cliche and makes him believable.

Best of all is former SNL standout Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mom, who is coping with her baby having a deadly disease, and she self-medicates in order to do it. Her relationship with Greg is borderline inappropriate and she always seems to have a glass of wine in her hand, but the role – while funny – never descends into parody and we wind up having enormous empathy for a woman who knows that if her only daughter dies, she’ll be all alone in the world. How unbearable must that be.

This is a movie that rather than being manipulative as these types of films tend to be comes by its emotional payoffs honestly. We become involved in the story and in Greg, and care about the characters in the movie as if they were in our own neighborhood. In a summer full of blockbusters and big studio releases, this might get lost in the shuffle in a lot of ways but is worth keeping an eye out for. It is expanding into a wide release this weekend and is one of those rare teen movies that I can not only recommend to teens but to adults as well. This might just be the best movie you see this summer.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent performances all around. Feels authentic. Gripping when it needs to be, funny when it needs to be.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally suffers from indie preciousness. Sometimes feels like it’s borrowing from too many other sources.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are fairly adult; there is some sexuality, some drug use and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox Searchlight purchased this film for $12 million at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; it is as of this date the most ever paid for a film at Sundance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience 2015 begins!

Beware the Gonzo


Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

Ezra Miller is having a bad hair day.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Jesse McCartney, Amy Sedaris, Campbell Scott, Judah Friedlander, Griffin Newman, Stefanie Hong, Edward Gelbinovich, James Urbaniak, Marc John Jefferies, Lucian Maisel, Jerry Grayson, Yul Vazquez, Steven Kaplan, Tyrone Brown, Noah Fleiss, Tyler Johnson, Lucy DeVito, Julia Weldon. Directed by Bryan Goluboff

High school is, contrary to what many folks think, not a microcosm of life, although there are some similarities. For example, those who are wealthy and good-looking tend to have advantages over those who are not. It is also very difficult to be noticed if you aren’t one of the aforementioned. Come to think of it, high school might very well be a microcosm of life.

Eddie Gilman (Miller) has aspirations. He longs to attend Columbia University and enter the undergraduate journalism program (note to screenwriter: they don’t have one). To that end he toils away on the school newspaper which is ruled with an iron fist by editor and jock Gavin Riley (McCartney) with the tacit support of Principal Roy (Urbaniak).

When Eddie’s hard-hitting expose on bullying in the school is brutally edited down to a single paragraph puff piece, he’s none too pleased and when he complains, Gavin fires him. Eddie’s future is suddenly in grave doubt.

But Eddie is a fighter. He decides to start his own newspaper and calls it the Gonzo Files. Gonzo journalism, as coined by Hunter S. Thompson, is a confrontational style of journalism and Eddie is certainly that. His mission is not only to get himself back on the track he was on but to write for the marginalized and the ignored.

The first issue is a sensation. Eddie and his team – rebellious school slut Evie Wallace (Kravitz) who harbors a dark secret but nonetheless becomes an item with Eddie, Horny Rob Becker (Newman) who goes after the less attractive girls because he figures that they’re easier to score with, Ming Na (Hong), an Asian-American with a chip on his shoulder and Schneeman (Gelbinovich) who is a very much picked-on smart kid – use a web presence with video to blow things wide open in school which neither Gavin nor Principal Roy are pleased about. However, when the second issue features an expose on the school cafeteria complete with pictures and videos of vermin in the storeroom, that garners attention on the school that the Principal is really unhappy about and so the nascent publication is ordered shut down.

Eddie has no intentions of doing that however – after all, he founded it because he felt it necessary to have a free press in school – but the fame and the high of being a celebrity in school has gone to his head. It could cost him everything – his future, his parents’ marriage, his friends and the girl.

This is one of those movies that have some glaring flaws but is offset by some really good writing. If the characters are a bit stereotypical – the sadistic jock, the rebel, the geek, the snobby cheerleaders, the bureaucratic administrator – they are at least talking and acting like real people (mostly). Miller, who is cornering the market on teen angst in movies like We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Here his character isn’t quite as realized as fully as Kevin but there certainly is plenty of angst. Miller was electric in the former movie and although he’s merely good enough here, looks ready to be a breakout star.

Kravitz, the daughter of pop singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet, in some ways might relate more to the beautiful people clique of the school – she certainly has the beautiful part down (considering her genes, how could she not?). I admired her performance more than any in the movie; her character not coincidentally has the most depth to it in the script. Evie has some real suffering in her background and Kravitz brings it forward nicely; when she’s betrayed late in the movie you can see the hurt in her eyes. She’s another one to watch.

Veterans Sedaris and Scott are dependable actors but are wasted here, sadly. Most of the rest of the predominantly young cast do decent jobs here some in thankless stereotype roles. I have to admit that there are some cathartic moments where the very snooty and cruel upper crusters get their comeuppance. I’m not proud of it but sometimes it’s a good for the soul to see the privileged get theirs.

I thought this movie was about how acclaim and adoration corrupt everyone, no matter how well-intentioned although I haven’t seen that anywhere else in the reviews I read. The movie is told as a flashback and when Eddie intones at the start “All in all, I got off easy,” he’s right on target. This isn’t about the rise of the righteous or the fall of the affluent – it’s about the redemption of the ego, which can be the hardest place to come back from. As Eddie has to weigh getting the story against the effect that the story will have on people he cares about, the movie comes to grips with an ethical question that many journalists have had to face in their careers in one form or another. Like Eddie, there were no easy answers for them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever in places. A bit of a guilty pleasure.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Basic teen misbehavior and a bit of foul language as well as brief violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Goluboff is best known for writing the screenplay for The Basketball Diaries.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of a High School President

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shadow of the Vampire

The Myth of the American Sleepover


Ships that pass in the night.

Ships that pass in the night.

(2010) Coming of Age (Sundance Selects) Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey, Amy Seimetz, Amanda Bauer, Jean Louise O’Sullivan, Claire Sloma, Marlon Morton, Brett Jacobsen, Annette DeNoyer, Wyatt McCallum, Mary Wardell, Steven M. Francis III, Megan Boone, Madi Ortiz. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

The last day of summer is a bittersweet affair for a high schooler. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is at an end and the school year is about to begin. The latter of course is the grind of homework and classrooms but also the possibilities of being another year older, another year closer to adulthood with everything that entails, the good and the bad.

In a small town in Michigan, that can be especially poignant. Small towns have their hierarchy, their social strata when it comes to high school. And being a small town, everybody knows everybody, everybody knows their place and that place is mainly in a town where nothing much ever happens.

Rob (Morton) runs into a beautiful blonde (Ortiz) and spends the night chasing her all over town. Fiercely independent Maggie (Sloma) chooses not to go to the party she was invited to but wants to go to something far more adult because she has an eye for pool boy Cameron (Francis). New girl in town Claudia (Bauer) is a bit of an outcast among the other girls because she has the gall to have a boyfriend (trollop!) of her own. And college-age Scott (Jacobsen) drives back to town from Detroit in order to pursue his high school dream girls the Abbey twins – Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna (Jade Ramsey), ending up spending an evening discussing who he loves most and which twin actually loves him.

This is not a Project X destruction of property drunkathon. Sure the alcohol flows liberally but the point here isn’t getting into a coma; it’s to get to a point of comfort and confession. There is a bit of a mellow feel that is a refreshing counterpoint to the usual frenetic coming of age teen sex comedies.

And don’t fool yourselves, sex is the central issue here although the focus is more on discussing it rather than doing it. Which if you think about it is pretty much true for most teens. First-time director Mitchell gives the movie a more or less authentic feel – although my teen years were spent in the suburbs and not a small town, the characters here seem pretty familiar and realistic to me.

The trouble might just lie in the familiarity. While most of the actors here are relatively inexperienced, Sloma stands out mostly because she radiates more personality and attitude than the other actors. From my standpoint she seems to be more developed and perhaps more natural than the other actors – none of whom disgrace themselves, I might add. But Sloma stood out as someone with potential for a pretty serious career. The rest of the cast looks so youthful that at times they look like children dressing up as adults which could serve as a definition of teenagers in some ways.

The trouble is that in making the teens realistic teens that we are treated to one of the main drawbacks to being a teen – the not really knowing what you want or how to get it. Because of that, the film lacks a certain amount of focus, wandering seemingly aimless through plot points. And with that teenage concern for being hip and happening and up-to-the-minute, there’s a sense here that the filmmakers are a bit too self-aware about their own film – I have a feeling that in 20 years this movie will be exceptionally dated.

As first efforts go I’ve seen worse. You have to give the filmmakers props for making a coming of age teen sex dramedy more thoughtful and less raunchy. It portrays kids as more than just their hormones, which is also a worthy achievement. With some better story-telling and fewer characters, this might have been an important film. As it is there are too many storylines to really get you time to get involved with any of the characters. While there were no parents anywhere in the film (and precious little adult presence), you get the sense that Mitchell had parents in mind when he made this because it seems to me that this is a teen coming of age movie aimed at their parents more than at the teens themselves.

WHY RENT THIS: A more sensitive, indie version of the teen sex comedy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders aimlessly in places. Sometimes too self-conscious.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and lots of it; actually more accurately, discussions about sex more so than depictions of the act itself. Also a pretty liberal use of foul language and some teen drinking and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trip from suburban Detroit to Ann Arbor that Scott undertakes is about 50 miles give or take.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41,045 on an unknown production budget; although it’s production costs were certainly quite low, I’m reasonably sure that it lost money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger


Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger

The world has a sunnier outlook when seen from under a straw boater.

(2008) Dramedy (Monterey Media) Danielle Catanzariti, Toni Collette, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Leticia Monaghan, Christian Byers, Essie Davis, Russell Dykstra, Jonny Pasvolsky, Caitlin McDougall, Edwin Hodgeman, Cassandra Jinman. Directed by Cathy Randall

Growing up is hard enough as it is. Growing up different  and longing to be normal – well, that’s pretty much how all of us perceive our adolescence. We all aim to be accepted and to fit in, but what is normal really? And how many of us fit the description?

Esther Blueburger (Catanzariti) is a 13-year-old girl in an exclusive Australian private school who yearns for that normalcy. Her twin brother Jacob (Byers) is a complete nerd and a social horror show but at least the two get along. Esther, with her glasses and her pet duckling (a foundling she calls Normal, after what she longs to be) is a bit of an odd duck herself, awkward with her classmates. Oh and did I mention that Esther’s Jewish?

Her bat mitzvah is approaching and with reluctant pluck Esther invites her classmates to the event. Of course, none of them show and Esther is mortified. Surrounded with well-meaning but overbearing aunties and relatives, she finds refuge in a nearby alley where she finds Sunni (Castle-Hughes) having a smoke. Sunni attends a public school that has caught Esther’s eye – the students there seem far more accepting.

Esther drags Sunni to her party where she passes her off as a classmate, which reassures her emotionally distant self-centered parents (Davis, Dykstra) who haven’t a clue about the hell their daughter is going through. Sunni, however, gets it much better than they do and the girls hatch a plan. Sunni forges the signature of Esther’s parents on paperwork excusing Esther from the school for a year on an exchange program to Sweden. She then enrolls Esther in the public school, passing her off as an exchange student from Sweden. This makes Esther instantly popular.

The plan works a little too well. Soon Sunni’s friends begin to flock to Esther and ignore Sunni. Esther develops a deeper and closer relationship with Sunni’s exotic dancer mum (Collette). The relationship becomes extremely strained – and a tragedy threatens to dissolve it completely.

This coming-of-age tale arrives to us courtesy of Randall, a soap opera veteran making her feature film writing and directing debut. There are quite a few things to admire about her first movie – among them, Esther herself who has an offbeat appeal. Part of that has to do with her never-say-die attitude; part of it has to do with Catanzariti who has a natural charisma that is readily apparent. If she chooses to pursue the acting thing, she has a bright future.

Castle-Hughes who was so impressive in Whale Rider has a nice role here which is very different. She’s a bit of a tough gal with a heart of gold who at the core is much more fragile than anybody realizes. In many ways I thought her part was a bit more realistic than that of Esther; Castle-Hughes does a fine job bringing it to life.

Teen coming of age movies tend to have an overabundance of quirkiness to them, but this one tones it down to levels where it is actually a bit more realistic. Female leads in these types of movies are exceedingly rare and often have a bimbo aspect to them; this movie is refreshingly sex-free but that doesn’t mean Esther and Sunni don’t have an interest in boys. Okay, more like an obsession. Just like almost every other 13-year-old girl.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a goofy charm that gets under your skin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tragic element seems a little forced and at odds with the movie’s otherwise sunny tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements that might be inappropriate for youngsters, a few foul words here and there, some teen smoking and a teensy bit of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Castle-Hughes was pregnant during the filming of the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video and a more interesting than usual featurette about the casting of Danielle Catanzariti as Esther and how she transformed into the role.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Joneses