Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.
It can be really nice to go into a film blank. No expectations, no idea, no concern. It’s the way we most classically enjoy stories. Someone just starts talking and you listen, letting them aurally guide you on a journey to some mystery location. So I urge you, don’t read this review, at least not yet. Go against your urges, stay away from the Tomatometer, remove yourself from the internet. Let writer-director Anne Hamilton tell you a story, because she’s got a heck of one in American Fable.
We are drawn to Gitty because she is so sweet and deep down we want to see how the most wholesome can deal with the most evil.
The film begins humbly. You wander deep in the rows of corn. It’s a family farm, for all intents and purposes, it’s your family farm. It takes place softly in the 80s, but really it could be today. It is quiet, it is sweeping. You are dwarfed by the stalks, a child amongst mature plants. That’s American Fable. Far reaching and enveloping. It wraps you in its world before you even realize that you’re in it.
Its center is Peyton Kennedy’s Gitty, a kind-hearted young girl defined by her sense of exploration. Kennedy’s performance is impressive if not always convincing, but she carries a heavy burden in this lead role. She is to be both a bright-eyed youth and the film’s moral center. For a film that is essentially one large morality lesson, being the moral voice is quite the task. Hamilton writes Gitty bravely, accepting her naiveté and leveraging it for the greater story growth. We are drawn to Gitty because she is so sweet and deep down we want to see how the most wholesome can deal with the most evil.
The weird thing is that outside of Gitty and a wonderful performance from Richard Schiff, much of the other characters are more fairytale than reality. The villainous Vera is all deep reds and black leather like some kind of modern wicked witch. Older brother Martin is a cartoon of villainy, just pure unadulterated hate. It may be Hamilton’s point to paint the surroundings broadly, as it does position the film firmly on the side of Gitty and establishes this story as hers to tell. But it trips past mood setting into oddly alienating, robbing the film of some of its strength as it further abandons reality.
The camera acts as a tonal eye for the film, sweeping and grandiose when beauty is required and dirty and claustrophobic in the darkness.
Then again, if this distanced world of the fantastical looks this good, reality can stuff it. Because the cinematography of Wyatt Garfield in American Fable is wondrous. The camera acts as a tonal eye for the film, sweeping and grandiose when beauty is required and dirty and claustrophobic in the darkness. Garfield’s visual landscape is varied and complex but always appropriate for the film. It is something wonderful and mesmerizing to behold.
Although its story has some bits that aren’t entirely successful, American Fable serves as an announcement of a new a stylistically bold director in Anne Hamilton. At times the film is reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, yet throughout, its voice remains strong and unique. Hamilton balances the film’s more frightening elements with the sweet and touching to disarming effect. The cinematography is captivating, especially one distinct dream sequence that is perhaps the best encapsulation of the film’s tonal proclivities. The many filmmaking pieces, from the creeping score to the set design that so often mirrors the characters inhabiting them, coalesce fantastically in the creation of a fascinating world of dangerous implications. American Fable is a dream slowly becoming nightmare and we are just lucky enough to be along for the ride.