Written and Directed by: Anne Hamilton
Starring: Peyton Kennedy, Richard Schiff, and Kip Pardue
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Why is everyone so afraid to tell the truth?"
As its title suggests, American Fable is something of a dark parable. Specifically, it’s a coming-of-age tale about moral complexity and the growing realization that the world is, well, shit. And sometimes, your own family is complicit in it. Growing up, you’re coddled with fairy tales that slowly evaporate with age, yielding to the cold, hard reality that there is no real magic. Anne Hamilton has captured the space between with American Fable, a film that seemingly unfolds during a perpetual magic hour, where fantasy and reality collide during the dark night of a family’s soul.
Caught in the middle of a maelstrom is Gitty (Peyton Kennedy), a wide-eyed but sharp 11-year-old who isn’t quite aware that life as she knows it is teetering on the brink. Living on a Wisconsin family farm during the early 80s, she spends most of her days walking amongst corn stalks and working alongside her father Abe (Kip Pardue). Something ominous encroaches, however: with several nearby farms failing and their despondent owners turning to suicide, there are more than enough hints that all is not well. While President Reagan assures the country that this farm crisis will be solved, Abe’s insistence that it’s bullshit resonates much more with Gitty. So, too, do her parent’s constant arguments, which boil over from hushed whispers to full-blown outbursts. Soon, a mysterious woman (Zuleikha Robinson) enters their lives dealing in furtive glances and cryptic conversations.
Obviously, Gitty is not meant to be privy to these secrets, nor is she supposed to wander near a forbidden silo on the edge of the farm. Naturally, her curiosity wins out there, prodding her to peek in, where she discovers a man (Richard Schiff) being held captive. Because Gitty’s world is dominated by stories—be them bedtime tales or the fables passed back and forth with her dad—she naturally assumes this man is some kind of magical being. Certainly, he doesn’t help matters by insisting he can grant Gitty anything she wants as long as she helps him procure certain items, like books and food. She’s more than willing to provide that and more, as she strikes up a friendship with this inexplicably imprisoned, cagey man who speaks in literal riddles and tells cryptic stories.
Not that she’d ever admit it, but in many ways, this friendship and her insistence that this man is somehow a magical creature is Gitty’s defense mechanism. A much darker and sadly more realistic truth regarding the man’s captivity unfolds in the background, with the family doing its best to conceal Gitty from the harsh reality. That’s the central tension of American Fable, a film that isn’t conventionally “scary” so much as it’s forlorn and heartbreaking. Few things are more unsettling than a child being forced to confront awful realizations about their world and families, so the entire film feels like Gitty’s feverish attempt to resist the truth. She loses herself with her new friendship and her own imagination, which may or may not be warping reality around her, as certain elements in her life are reimagined in folktale terms. Suddenly, the mysterious, interloping woman becomes a spectral, horse-riding creature, perhaps some malevolent, otherworldly trickster that’s come to upend her family. Imagining that sure beats the truth that her father and brother (Gavin MacIntosh) aren’t quite the noble men she’s always assumed them to be.
American Fable proceeds more or less from Gitty’s point-of-view, as it takes on the elusive tenor of a dream. Hamilton’s decision to couch the film in the 80s initially lends the nostalgic glow of sun-splashed photography and evocative, dusky compositions. Given that Hamilton worked on the set of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, it’s not surprising that she absorbed some of his style, particularly his penchant for wistful shots of nature. There’s something charmingly cozy about American Fable when it follows the family to local carnivals and captures children in pursuit of fireflies. However, Hamilton isn’t interested in indulging it but rather undoing it: slowly but surely, the darkness at the margins of the story begins to encroach upon Gitty’s gilded existence, effectively chipping away at the film’s rose-tinted veneer.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the film becomes more abstract and laconic as this happens, almost as if Gitty were attempting to impose her imaginative will on reality. At a certain point, American Fable begins to feel like a pastiche of memory, imagination, dreams, and reality; what’s more, Hamilton is hesitant to untangle it, so certain tangents, flashbacks, and suggestions linger without total coherence, reflecting Gitty’s own confusion and ignorance. Not everything in American Fable makes complete sense, but there’s no denying that poignant, perceptive feeling of moving through childhood and having your world crash down around you, with denial, anger, and horror swirling about.
Gitty’s bout with this rite of passage is especially moving thanks to a revelatory turn by Kennedy. Tasked with shouldering pretty much the entire film (only a small handful of scenes don’t involve her), she infuses Gitty with an appropriate blend of wide-eyed naiveté and a wise-beyond-her-years pluckiness. Without even bordering on cloying precociousness, Kennedy portrays Gitty as an idealist whose blissful, idyllic worldview must remain intact at all costs. Once the film’s central tension doesn’t allow for that, American Fable not only becomes a heartbreaking depiction of childhood slipping away, but also a harrowing introduction to post-conventional morality. When Gitty learns the truth, she’s faced with a complex decision: does she do the right thing even if it will spell ruin for her family? Or does that loyalty trump all?
That pun is very much intended, by the way. Not to be that critic who finds evidence of the shitty administration infecting our country in every film, but American Fable certainly captures the insular, us-vs-them rural mentality that swelled up in response to Trump’s populism. Gitty’s father might be critical of Reagan, but both he and his son exhibit the sort of tribalism that festers in the heart of this group of people, with the latter taking it to a disturbing extreme. Emerging as a complete counterpoint to his sister, Martin grows increasingly hostile and protective of a homestead he sees to be under siege by big city yuppies and corporations. He’s all too eager to fall under the visiting woman’s sway, to the point of inflicting violence upon anyone he considers a threat—whether it’s warranted or not. Perhaps more than anything, American Fable is a plea for empathy: Gitty certainly has more than enough to spare, while Martin has virtually none.
While any rightminded person would side with Gitty there, American Fable refuses to completely validate it. One of the stories Schiff (whose performance is terrifically shifty, by the way) relays to Gitty is a parable involving a naive mouse coming to the aid of a ferocious lion, and it comes to underpin the entire pin. Obviously, it’s a reflection of these characters’ particular dynamic, allowing its implications to subtly rumble beneath the tension, effectively paving the way for a diabolically ambiguous ending. There are moments when Hamilton’s dialogue is a bit too precious and her symbolism a bit on the nose, but this elliptical conclusion is absolutely, masterfully earned. Early in the film, Gitty insists on hearing a story with a happy ending; by the end, she’s part of a story that doesn’t even have a clear-cut one. Nothing captures the pangs of growing up quite like the realization that not everything in life can be spelled out with such simplicity.
Hamilton has crafted a striking debut with American Fable, which faintly recalls the likes of Spirit of the Beehive and Pan’s Labyrinth. Obviously, that puts her in esteemed company, and most definitely makes her a talent to follow in the future.
American Fable is now available on DVD from IFC Midnight. The disc features deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes stills galleries.
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