After the debut of Netflix’s buzzy, but flawed 90s teen dramedy Everything Sucks, you might be interested to see more of one of that show’s breakout stars, Peyton Kennedy. Luckily, Netflix already has Reed’s debut film, 2016’s indie thriller American Fable, in which she plays a 1980s Midwestern girl who turns to fantasy to cope with an impossible situation. If that sounds a lot like the setup for an American Pan’s Labyrinth to you, be prepared to be disappointed. American Fable never leans as hard into fantasy as it could, and it fails to provide a reality worth getting totally invested in. In the end, it’s a lot of promise but not enough payoff, mostly watchable due to Reed’s performance and the strength and, at times, sheer beauty of Anne Hamilton’s direction.
Kennedy plays 11-year-old Gitty, a Wisconsin farm girl in 1982 with a deep love for stories and big dreams of traveling the world. She’s young and innocent enough to have a pet chicken named Happy, but old enough to have come across her first dirty magazine and know the names of cities like Sydney, Auckland, London, and Timbuktu. A clear daddy’s girl with no real friends, she’s only just beginning to question her elders and what she believes to be true about the world.
So, when a dinner table conversation turns to talk of maybe losing the farm to debtors she asks to learn more, but her parents insist on shielding her from the truth, which is that her dad Abe (Kip Pardue) really is thousands of dollars in debt. Her pregnant mother (Marci Miller) has had to take a factory job to help support the family. Her sociopathic older brother Martin (Gavin MacIntosh) is the only one willing to talk about what’s actually happening.
Gitty eventually stumbles upon a man (Jonathan, played by the ever-reliable Richard Schiff) trapped in the family silo. He claims to be a wealthy land speculator who was simply doing his job. He doesn’t know who hit him, how he got there, or whose silo he’s even in. Unsure of what to do, Gitty befriends Jonathan over time and brings him food, books to read, and even a full chess set, trusting that his words of peace toward her are genuine and that he’s not just feigning friendship as part of his plot to escape.
However, she also begins to think of Jonathan as someone legitimately capable of granting wishes and starts picturing the mysterious woman who put her father up to this apparent kidnapping as some kind of Maleficent-like creature with horns, black robes, and always riding atop a black stallion.
So, basically, it’s a Reagan-era revenge plot featuring a beleaguered family of farmers kidnapping and extorting the wealthy businessman trying to ruin their way of life, except it’s all depicted from the point of view of an 11-year-old who is never told what’s actually happening and grows to view the situation through the lens of fantasy. I love that idea; just not the execution of it. For example, when Gitty says the line in the above screenshot and then later doubles-downs on it I was taken aback as I had no idea she was meant to genuinely believe that.
Written and directed by Anne Hamilton, American Fable is her ode to where she grew up and the films she loved as a kid, which might explain the vaguely Spielbergian strands throughout. However, Hamilton is also someone who started her career as an intern on the set of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Knowing that helps make more sense of her decision to mark the beginning of American Fable’s third act not with any kind of significant plot twist or escalation in action but instead a recitation of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” set to a montage of elegiac imagery.
Hamilton, making her directorial debut, proves to have a highly cinematic eye in putting together, as Tasha Robinson put it, “sunny, idealized landscapes” and capturing “the practical wonder of childhood.” But the film never completely comes together. Fantastical dream sequences, ominous images of black stallions in the distance, weird references to warriors, and endless banter about choosing what kind of person to be in the world culminates in a rather disappointing, dimly lit nighttime chase around the farm. It certainly doesn’t help that the emerging antagonist, Martin, feels entirely lifted out of one of those Stephen King stories where a thinly drawn, teenage bully is clearly just a serial killer in waiting.
Gitty’s journey from a girl driven to tears after her father hits a baby deer with his car to someone mature and practical enough to know what to do with a dying farm animal is certainly effective enough. However, what you end up with is the work of a first-time actress and her first-time writer-director who will each clearly move on to bigger and better things. In Kennedy’s case, she already has. I look forward to seeing what Hamilton does next.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The hard-to-categorize American Fable dabbles in fantasy, fairy tale, and overly obvious metaphor and is lifted considerably by a strong central performance and gorgeous imagery. But it is undone by underwritten supporting characters, the occasional bit of clunky dialogue, a disappointing finale, and the failure to consistently walk the tricky line between fantasy and reality.
Recommended mostly for fans of films which juxtapose the innocent worldview of a child with stark reality as well as for anyone interested in the idea of a vaguely magical realist coming-of-age story centered on a young girl and written and directed by a woman. Just don’t expect a satisfying payoff.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
- According to THR, Hamilton was one of eight women selected for the 2014 AFI Directing Workshop for Women.
American Fable is currently available to stream on Netflix.