By: Addison Wylie
Acting as this year’s Fame High at TIFF Next Wave, I Learn America is also about a select group of students who attend high school and face frequent obstacles. In Fame High, those students were hampered when chasing a creative dream. In I Learn America, these young immigrants try and understand the American dream.
New York City’s Lafayette is the home of International High School. The school opens its doors for nearly any teen who has made their way over from their foreign homeland. The patient teachers are careful with each student without slathering them in condescension. International High recognizes that these are smart kids that just need a bit of help adjusting to a new lifestyle.
Filmmakers Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng nail down a remarkable flow that allows the two documentarians to follow and switch between five diverse students. The transitions are very smooth and the audience doesn’t feel as if we’re getting clipped backstories of the film’s main subjects.
I Learn America is an absorbing watch because of how likeable and analytical each teenager is. What’s even more interesting is seeing how they enjoy being honest.
As one student notes, the power behind freedom of speech is not enabled to all in different parts of the world. When these immigrants move to North America, they realize how easy it is to form and voice opinions. It’s an attribute of curiosity they all take off with.
They confront each other about their ethnicities and why American culture is structured the way it is. They’re blunt, but innocent. These talks serve as informative content in the documentary about how easily teens can have rational discussions about differences no matter how divergent they are.
We also see how their practicalities make them that much more of a fish out of water. After a fistfight, a teacher asks the victimized student why he fought back. The teen answers, “to get my revenge.” That’s, of course, the only time where things get physical in I Learn America.
The doc covers a year at International High, and it flies by in a flash. The audience is allowed to develop a connection to the five students, and we feel as much compassion towards them as the teachers apply.
It’s a film that packs a decent amount of heft to its messages about adapting and feeling like an outcast, however it dodges being a heavy-handed vehicle. It even finds time to be cute during an amusing documentation of the year-end prom.
I Learn America deserves a hearty recommendation. It’s a bona fide doc with flawless charm and genuineness.
Catch I Learn America at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday, February 16 at 2:00 pm. The filmmakers will be in attendance.
More TIFF Next Wave coverage at Wylie Writes:
Read my review of For No Eyes Only (screening Sunday, February 16 at 1:30 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox)
Read my review of G.B.F. (screening Sunday, February 16 at 6:15 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox)