DIRECTED BY: Anne Hamilton
FEATURING: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, Kip Pardue, Zuleikha Robinson
PLOT: A 11-year old girl in Reagan-era America wrestles with her conscience when she discovers a man being held hostage on her farm.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although the film pays lip service to magical realism and utilizes some striking imagery, there’s nothing especially weird about American Fable, although it does signal some interesting new voices.
COMMENTS: American Fable lays all its cards out on the table before the movie even begins. After all, the name of the movie is American Fable. Our tale will be fantastical, but highly moral, and with the particular shadings of fierce independence and bull-headed determination that flourishes in the United States. Titles, after all, are important.
They certainly nail the “American” part right away, opening on a family farm in Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where a father reads a story to his daughter while Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial plays in the background. As that combination would suggest, times are tough, with small farmers struggling to fight off the banks and predatory land barons, with increasingly dire results. Indeed, the family of our hero will eventually turn to crime in an effort to buy their way out of the hole.
The “fable” part, on the other hand, is a longer walk. That father is reading tales of princesses and monsters to his daughter, Gitty, and while she is on the cusp of learning harder truths about the world, she still has a childlike attraction to the trappings of fairy tales. As she learns more about her family’s situation, she is inclined to view them through the lens of fantasy.
This isn’t a “Walter Mitty” scenario, though. Aside from a couple dream visions that portray one of her father’s associates as a fantastical witch queen, the elements of fable come through more as tropes played straight. A lonely farm girl with only a chicken for a friend, the discovery of a man in an abandoned tower, a handsome young man who is revealed to be thoroughly wicked: these would be perfectly at home in a Disney feature, but American Fable never winks at them.
The line this film walks is a tricky one. If you take the story seriously, then the plot immediately falls apart. If you insist that it’s merely an ancient tale transplanted to more recent times, then it’s lacking in any real mystery or magic. Director Hamilton tries to help her own script with a genuine knack for visuals. She has a painterly eye, artfully composing every shot and transforming rural Illinois (standing in for Wisconsin) into a setting worthy of the Impressionists. But her story tries to have it both ways, and never really succeeds at either.
Working in the film’s favor is uniformly strong acting, selling situations and characters that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. In particular, Schiff is expectedly reliable as a man by turns wistful and desperate about his circumstances. But the whole enterprise rests on the shoulders of Kennedy, who succeeds completely. Not an inexperienced actor (I encountered her previously in another weird setting as the irascible doctor on the educational quirkfest Odd Squad), she is completely believable, naïve but not stupid, reacting in the best way she knows how to situations beyond her understanding, and torn when she finds herself on both sides of a moral dilemma. American Fable ultimately doesn’t succeed as either the raw drama or the mystical metaphor that it wants to be. As a showcase for its director and star, however, it’s an outstanding calling card.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Anne Hamilton’s first feature as a writer/director… plays out in a landscape aching with beauty and color and strangeness, a vivid Eden about to disappear. Hamilton has created a surreal and magical atmosphere for this melodramatic family thriller, and it is the atmosphere that dominates.” – Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com