IFFB Film Review: ‘Step’ and ‘Maineland’ examine opposite ends of the modern school experience
For all of our 2017 Independent Film Festival Boston coverage, click here.
There’s always something appealing to documentary filmmakers about the school year. Perhaps it’s the imposed structure of the school year itself, with its clearly defined beginnings and endings, and the requisite change that comes with the passing of time. Maybe it’s because conflict is easily and quickly defined, as you’ve got hundreds of people with different backgrounds sharing the same space, and it’s a recipe for all sorts of genuine emotion (especially when said people are going through some intense changes in brain chemistry).
This year at Independent Film Festival Boston, there were two stunning documentaries about young people and their school experiences, though they couldn’t be further apart in setting and the length of time the docs covered: Step, Amanda Lipitz’s Sundance hit about three girls in a Baltimore high school’s step team working together in the aftermath of Freddie Grey’s death and in the shadow of their impending graduations; and Maineland, Miao Wang’s hit documentary about two Chinese “parachute students” who leave their homeland to study abroad at a private school in Maine, and their struggles adjusting to the culture and the joys they find over here in the course of their four years of study.
They’re both award-winners: Step having received the Special Jury Prize at Sundance prior to its acquisition by Fox Searchlight, and Maineland captured best doc awards at both SXSW and at our festival; and both will probably become required viewing if you like talking about movies with friends this year.
Step already is poised to hit that lovely mid-summer documentary niche that so many others have ridden to box office glory (March of the Penguins, or more appropriately, spelling bee doc Spellbound) and it’s not hard to see why: It’s a gorgeously uplifting story of three students at an African-American majority all-girls Baltimore charter school, and their struggles and successes on their way towards graduation and the start of college. The film opens with a montage of the civil unrest following the awful death of Freddie Gray in 2015 (the team does visit the Baltimore memorial to Gray in a deeply moving scene), and in a way, the whole thing acts as a stirring assertion of the claim “Black Lives Matter.” We witness these young women change so much over the course of the film that it almost feels a bit reductive to talk about the Step Team elements as an attractive feature of this documentary, but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due: The photography during their routines at Step competitions is wonderfully constructed, but never obvious enough to distract from the skill and talent of the performers.
While some might see Lipitz’s work as a piece of stealth propaganda for charter schools and the kind of “school choice” rhetoric that’s currently a centerpiece of our education secretary’s bullshit ethos, it’s hard to argue with the results here: Each of these girls find their calling by the end, which, after all, is one of the primary goals of schooling in general. We get to see Blessin, founding member of the step team and a boisterous bubbly personality, overcome dark aspects of her home life (her mother’s mental illness and the frequent references to violence in her past cast a shadow over her course in the film) and push onward to greater things. There’s so much joy to be found at the heart of Step that it’s easy to forget the darker aspects of it — say, when the power goes out at Valedictorian candidate’s house, because her parents can’t afford to pay the bill — but the movie’s always reminding you that the girls have a stable network of support, and the strength and resilience to endure the slings and arrows. It’s a truly excellent and empathetic documentary, and it’s one that’s sure to get a lot of notice come awards season.
While Step is great, it is a very conventional documentary, and, at times Miao Wang’s Maineland, with it’s lovely cinematography and hushed narration, approaches the meditative tones of Terrence Malick’s recent works. Its an interesting and abstract take on a format that, while occasionally still successful, needs a more diverse series of takes in order to endure. The central subjects of the documentary are Stella, a bright girl with a sunny disposition who’s excited to have her high school experience resemble High School Musical, and Harry, who’s an introvert with few expectations about life in the U.S. except for that it’s a big change for him. Both are from China’s ruling class, and both have dominant fathers who are successful businessmen, and they’re constantly reminded what’s at stake for them — a new, different life — and the pressure to impress their parents (and the inevitable disenchantment with them) mounts. Wang and her crew follows the two from their initial applications all the way up until their graduation four years later, and the changes they undergo are remarkable, and are carefully emphasized by the filmmaker.
There’s a lot of culture clash in the documentary, but it’s not necessarily the focus of the film; and the moment-by-moment documentation of microaggressions is kept to a minimum, as Wang looks a little past that. The characters constantly compare their homeland and the U.S., but the director always manages to push it past the simple surface observation and goes for something more interesting and abstract (she also manages to document their shifting relationships with their home and with their adopted country, and respects her audience’s’ intelligence, never drawing attention to the contradictions and changes) Wang’s able to get deep into her subjects’ psyches, and document what would be to them absolutely massive changes (like the dissolution of the marriage of one student’s parents) in a dispassionate and quietly devastating way. This, of course, is likely the result of filming schedules, but it works, in an organic and honest way. Maineland may not overwhelm or demand attention in the same way that Step does, but it’s striking in its lovely portrayal of the passing of time, and the changes that young folks go through.
Step hits theaters later this summer, and Maineland doesn’t have a general release just yet, but stay tuned. You can’t keep a doc this good down.