The riveting, often grim "P.O.V." documentary Mai's America follows a Vietnamese girl from a well-off Hanoi family who travels to America as a foreign exchange student and lands in rural Mississippi's armpit.
It is a shopworn cliche that outsiders often give us the truest picture of our lives, but in Mai's America that truism is indisputable.
Mai's America follows the perpetually enthusiastic and unflappably perky Mai as she tries to make the best of a rotten situation. She soon intuits that she has come to her host family as a kind of imported "pet" and companion for the family's daughter, a lonely high-schooler named Kim.
In director Marlo Poras' damning portrait of American life, Mai's America consists of boxy, nondescript houses plopped onto unornamented yards in the middle of nowhere. From the above-ground swimming pool and tiny slapdash deck to the gathering of relatives where food is served in Tupperware and fast-food boxes, the details of this America are like something out of a sitcom caricature. Mai's host family is a bunch of self-identified "rednecks," though that designation turns out to be insulting to real rednecks.
Lifeless, jobless, depressed slobs cocooned in afghans and tied to the narcotic of TV and antidepressants, the host family can't even crack a smile under the influence of the unsinkable Mai. As Mai chatters amiably, her host mother joylessly winds a sparkly Christmas garland around the homestead, like one of George Romero's zombies acting out some seasonal ritual without a trace of comprehension as to why.
"The only time they seem interested in me is when I do things in a weird way," Mai says of a family whose coma breaks when their own personal freak show puts ketchup on her salad or offers some other culture shock.
This slice of America is clammy, dark and Gummo-esque, a picture of the casual, bored debauchery of American teens typified by host-sister Kim who drags Mai to her boyfriend's trailer to have sex or lays in bed in a depressed heap.
In addition to its disturbing peek into the foreign exchange program, Mai's America captures the self-absorption and emptiness of an aspect of American life. This sloth looks especially grotesque when viewed next to the Vietnamese shoeshine boys, seen in the film's opening, who scramble on city streets for any crumb that comes their way. "In Vietnam, it takes so much time to make one dollar," Mai says in her typically terse and observant fashion, "and in America, it takes no time at all to spend it."
Mai is in some ways a borderless teen, driven by the same urges as any teen: She develops silly crushes, worries constantly about what other people think, shirks her work, tries to get into a good college. But the situation is made much more complicated by Mai's predicament as an upwardly mobile kid who is wealthy compared to most Vietnamese, but poor by middle-class American standards. Mai is slightly spoiled and reacts with a coddled child's revulsion when she finds herself working through college at Tulane University as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. But even such shows of teen snobbery don't loosen Mai's grip on our sympathies.
For a nation raised on inspirational myths of up-from-the-bootstraps go-getters, Mai bucks the simplistic narrative that goes something like "immigrate and the American dream will follow."
Mai begins the film a naive kid, and in the end is reduced to one of the shoeshine boys of the film's opening, a faceless immigrant who seems somehow "destined" for the life she has found herself in. The film is not only about Mai's hard luck experiences but about how easily anyone can lose their footing and slide into a life they never imagined.