*TLDR* - AMERICAN MOVIE IS THE PERFECT BLEND OF GENUINE COMEDY AND WHOLESOME INSIGHT. A CANDID DEPICTION OF LOWER CLASS STRUGGLES TOWARDS THE AMERICAN DREAM. IT'S "BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD" MEETS "ED WOOD"
"Is that what you wanna do with your life? Suck down peppermint schnapps and try to call Morocco at two in the morning? It's senseless but that's what happens, man"
This movie is an enigma. A documentary without a real core component in sight. A comedy with a ton of heart. A cast of genuinely lovable and aspirant underachievers. Family values mixed with family struggles. I really don't know what to say. It's just a perfect storm of watching people experience the woes of the common man in the modern world with their own unique and special outlooks, all encompassed by one man's desire to make a movie.
American Movie is the story of Mark Borchardt: A wannabe director putting everything he can into the production of his brainchild drama: "Northwesterner" about a young man who writes his way out of alcoholism and poverty. He seeks funding, talent, and volunteers, and thankfully someone to film behind-the-scenes. He eventually realizes the scope and costs are too large for just him and his associates, and so he focuses his efforts on a short film, "Coven" to supplement his earnings and help pave the way for Northwesterner. Mark, along with his best friend Mike Schank, maneuver the stresses of handling their vast array of financial and domestic issues, while developing a feature film, capturing your heart with their infectious bond. Mark and Mike prove to be foils of each other in terms of personality and intelligence, but are equally low brow and lack any self awareness. Mark craves success and the spotlight, and is extremely motivated but is constantly battling delusional grandeur. Many scenes detail the chronicles of Mark working low-end jobs while spouting diatribes about the wage-slaves of America, and issuing pity to the masses of people (like himself) below his fantasized status and earnings. Mike on the other-hand is a follower, and more than a little out-to-lunch. He is probably the worst right-hand man for any job, but yet here he is helping to produce a movie. Mike is a gem of a human being; Too pure for this world, despite his traumatic past with alcohol and drug abuse. His childlike and simple-minded nature makes depictions of his past and his progress in life honestly really endearing and sympathetic. These two come together to build this dream of Mark's, while handling the well intentioned but apathetic support of their friends and family.
This movie is more than a sum of it's parts. It shows Mark and Mike making a movie, but it's more about them living life with all it's ups and downs, and Coven's production is simply a consistent driving force that pushes the events and direction of the story.
As you watch these sympathetic and lovable fools make asses of themselves, you also fall witness to golden nuggets of wisdom from themselves, their friends, and family. These moments of vulnerability and intense personal reflection are bitter-sweet. Each moment of this movie depicts fragility and comedic irony to some degree producing constant waves of equal parts whimsy and melancholy.
The way that the director frames these bizarre characters, makes them incredibly relatable. Watching the dissonance on screen of Mike sharing his personal troubles in-between his comedic stupidity and fun-loving, sincere aid is wholesome and charming. It pieces together this jigsaw of what could have been another forgotten life which comes off being so endearing. The focus is on equating their lives to everyone's experiences of faith and disappointment. The difference is that Mark and Mike are way more candidly interesting than most people of their age and wage bracket. Listening to Mark having all these "hey man", valley dude, goofy monologues about his perceptions and unfiltered self-reflection makes the movie funny, but being interspersed with scenes of being a father, and entertaining his declining uncle displays the humanity a movie like this needs... It has a soul and heart, and the director clearly wasn't making this movie to be a stain on his friends ego, but to share something beautiful and self-aware (from his perspective). Without that vision, this would just be a weak exploitation film about two stooges, but instead it's restrained and appeals to you, not as a consumer of easily digestible moments of forced depiction, but as a mutual witness to the experiences of life.
The nuanced nature of everyone and their relationships in this movie is what gets me every time. It's so hard to define what makes these people "good", but I always end up believing they are either good people or at minimum: redeemable... But my favourite example is watching how Mark's uncle Bill is treated throughout the film. He's like the Eeyore of American Movie. He's slow, depressed, old, and tries to keep to himself despite loving his family. Watching him be equally shown love and genuine interest from his family, as well as sought after for his money in his senile state tears me up inside. It's difficult to pin point where you feel like having protest, because it's just too honest and nuanced of a situation. Everyone in this movie is a human being with flaws and redeeming factors. I appreciate that Mark is shown as an idealist, and positive family man, but also a self-interested delusional egomaniac, and how Mike probably only has a double digit IQ, but is a sweet and talented man capable of doing a lot of things I can't like play guitar and splice film reels. That's the thing I always leave with, is appreciating how multi-dimensional everyone is, and that's something that a lot of directors can't portray properly, but American Movie does so appropriately and respectfully.
I also couldn't end this review without mentioning the parallels between the two movies Mark wrote and his life. Northwesterner's plot is clearly centered around Mark and his struggles with overcoming his youth and eventual alcoholism. Even Coven is about an Alcoholics Anonymous style organization depicted as a cult. Pair these with Mark's reverence for alcohol and narcotics, and Mikes only recent stint with sobriety, and you can tell these guys have a ton of internal struggles and coping mechanisms. It's a subtle nod in the movie, but I think that was interesting enough to make a footnote here.
It's hard to be critical towards this movie; I'm simply smitten with the content of the film, and it's not really a "movie" in the traditional sense to begin with, so I can't treat it like one... There's no "screenplay". There's no "actors". There's no "set design" or "script". It's barely a documentary. It's just an incredibly succinct and entertaining look into the niche of American subculture, and it does exactly what it set out to do. Because of that, I think this movie is a must-watch... Any complaint I would make would be foolish. Is it perfect? no, but the context of what would make it perfect is purposeless if not non-existent. nit-picking scene composition for an amateur film like this is too easy, and says nothing; That simply just isn't the reason you should be watching it. If you are focused on that, you're missing the point entirely.
The things I can safely critique is the value of the film in pacing, editing, content, and the expectations the movie sets versus the outcome. You will not get an award-winning screenplay because there is none. It does what it can with the material, and it was done with passable editing after the fact. It starts weak and finishes strong, probably a bit slow paced and drawn out for what it is. The content is superb though. Whether or not this type of movie is for you, that's for you to decide, but if you like what you've read, you will adore this movie. It oozes charm and humor in a way that isn't possible in a scripted medium. This movie is lightning in a bottle. It can never be improved upon or recreated. The irony of "American Movie" being a critical success and "coven", the focal point and drive for American Movie, the actual full-length feature, being a relic lost in time is something beautiful all on it's own... "Coven" wasn't something meant to be mocked or even considered for ironic consumption, hence my thoughts: American Movie is about life, not insulting a movie and it's creators who dared to try... Nothing in this movie was created with malice or artifice. It is a candid depiction of lives that could have been forgotten and unseen, but thankfully this wasn't just a cynical exploitation of a delusional director. It's a celebration of small town oddities, and lives well lived. Rest in peace, Bill Borchardt. As always, This has been The Shelf signing off with another recommendation. Hopefully we see you around for a brand new review next week.