American Fable (2016)
Director: Anne Hamilton
Writer: Anne Hamilton
Cinematographer: Wyatt Garfield
Producer: Anne Hamilton and Kishori Rajan
by Jon Cvack
I saw American Fable at San Diego Film Festival where our film Road to the Well joined it in competition. Aside from the sense of honor I felt in having our micro budget feature contend with a film of this stature, I was pleased to see the female voice behind it. When I hear that more women need to be at the director’s helm, it’s a voice like Anne Hamilton’s which shows the grand potential. For the first time, perhaps since Kelly Reichart or Lynne Ramsy stepped into the game, there is a fresh female voice that I imagine all filmmakers - men and women alike - could look to for inspiration.
The film has been aptly described as a fairytale thriller, focusing on a farmer and his family, taking place in 1982, as America’s agriculture was undergoing a massive and fast big business consolidation. Looking back, the film seems to pull from Louis Malles God’s Country, which highlighted the struggles of Midwestern Farmers in the early 80s as they struggled with Reagan’s deregulatory policies that were smothering small farmers who couldn’t compete with their corporate competitor’s deep pockets; having much of their relief stunted as the agro-subsidies were cut off. This is some heavy stuff, and Hamilton makes the magnificent choice to include it all within an Aesop setting, focusing on the classic tale of the Lion and the Mouse where - for those forgetting - a mouse comes across a trapped lion who convinces the mouse to save him, then killing the mouse once free.
Reading a bit about Hamilton’s bio and hearing her Q&A at the fest, she interned for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, admitting at SDFF that the experience had a significant impact. The influence is clear from the get go, with an opening shot gazing into the setting sun reflecting upon the corn stalks, moving up and tilting down as a little girl Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) chases an imaginary mouse through the stalks. An old grain silo hangs at the back of the farm and Gitty discovers a man Jonatan (Richard Schiff) trapped inside. Given the dreamy vibe, we’re not who Jonathan is; whether a figment of Gitty’s imagination, a friend or foe; whether he’s hiding out or captured.
At his request, she admonishes Gitty to keep his presence secret. She returns home, where we get to meet her father Abe (Kip Pardue) who does a fantastic job of balancing between remaining the positive role model Gitty deserves, while struggling with the harsh reality that they’re very close to losing the farm. Her mother (Marci Miller ) is a delicate and beautiful figure, trying to preserve a stable home life to the best of her abilities. Across the sibling aisle is Gitty’s brother Martin (Gavin MacIntosh) whose sense of competition and maniacal desire to resolve problems in the most gruesome ways possible seems to mirror the political environment the farm is battling.
I think most filmmakers who read Aesop's Fables share the thrill of adapting its contents. I’m not sure of many who have succeeded all that well, and for what could have easily drifted into heavy-handed moralizing, was thoughtful and progressive. Although the Lion and Mouse fable was clear from the beginning, the point made me wonder how it would all connect. Hamilton didn’t appear to have any expectations that we wouldn’t immediately grasp its meaning or direction, and instead provided us the fable in order to make her own insights as accessible as possible. The film brilliantly floats a fine line between believability and fantasy. The wide and floating camera seems to hover in and out of action, making us feel a barrage of emotions, ranging from dark and hopeless to bright and limitless.
In the end, as we see the family descending into darkness, learning that they kidnapped Jonathan all along in order to retrieve a ransom for his return, Gitty is torn between honoring their trust and doing what is right. From Gitty’s perspective, and what made me nostalgic for youth, was her inability to see the politics. She didn’t know what was at stake or grasp the farm’s future; all she saw was a man held against his will, harboring no ill-will toward her. And it’s here that story really makes you think. Thought out, Gitty’s actions might have cost her family the farm. The ending, in which Jonathan returns in a stretch limo, definitely left me wondering what his return meant, as it didn’t feel exactly aboveboard. Whether purchasing the farm or entering some litigious matter, I think Gitty was about to grasp what those actions meant. And by cutting at that exact moment, ending the film, we were left to fill in the blanks. Given the cynicism extending through the film, I have to believe that like the Lion and Mouse, the Lion was coming to eat them at a latter time. Does this mean Gitty would regret the decision? Like any great fable, we are able to take from it what we wish, connecting to whatever character we desire. Aesop doesn’t tell us what is right or wrong, he just tells us how the things can be. It’s such a wonderful and breathtaking film, and I can’t wait to see what Hamilton does next.
BELOW: I was certain that this film would make fires once released, but it too had only a modest release; serving as yet another sign of the abysmal indie film landscape. Not much on YouTube so here's the trailer
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