AFI Docs Review: “I Learn America”

The world premiere of a film about international students in New York City offers a new side to the immigration debate.

By: Douglas Bair

You could be forgiven for thinking the Macarena isn’t exactly the cornerstone of cultural assimilation, but for teens at New York City’s International High School at Lafayette, the dance is indicative of the essence of American culture.

In I Learn America, filmmakers Gitte Peng and Jean-Michel Dissard follow a group of adolescent immigrants through high school, as they grapple with everything from civics homework to soccer practice to self-discovery. But the film’s main focus is how the students experience their introduction to a new society’s norms. In interview after interview, they recount personal anecdotes and struggles to the point where the movie starts to resemble an episode of MTV’s True Life.

It’s evident that the filmmakers are attempting to understand and explain why these students’ families either brought them to the US or sent them stateside to live with relatives, but the narrative lacks cohesion. Though scenes showing students struggling to assimilate into American culture while attempting to retain ties to their homelands are valid, the way in which the film chooses to portray their stories often undermines the complexity of the situations, coming across to the audience as simple juvenile angst.

One issue that could have been explored with more depth is the correlation between expulsion and deportation; there are scenes that depict both, but I Learn America fails to solidly show the links between them. Still, the film’s message of how difficult it is to juggle ties to two cultures while simultaneously navigating the pitfalls of adolescence offers a new and often-ignored perspective to the thorny immigration debate.

Playing June 22, noon, at the National Portrait Gallery and June 23, 11:30 AM, at the National Museum of American History.