I Learn America Directed by Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng June 22 at noon at National Portrait Gallery and June 23 at 11:30 a.m. at American History Museum

High school was a trying time for us all, what with trying to figure out who we are and what we’re going to do after graduation. But what is high school like if you’re new to America, learning a new language, and dealing with all the other disorienting aspects of teenage life? At Brooklyn’s International High School, which serves students who have limited English language skills and have lived in the U.S. for less than four years, the environment is doubly stressful. Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng’s I Learn America profiles several of these students. The documentary inspires but doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that for some of its female subjects, life in America isn’t much freer than life back home. Take Sandra, originally from Warsaw, who adopts a relatively butch style of dress when she gets to the U.S. but is still pressured by her traditional parents to wear a dress to the prom. Most heartbreaking of all is the story of Itrat, a girl from Pakistan who dreams of graduating high school and going to college but instead faces an impending arranged marriage. Watching the students achieve so much over the course of a school year feels good, but knowing their futures remain so uncertain leaves the viewer feeling worried, not uplifted.

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