2017 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Two – AMERICAN FABLE
If Day One of the Milwaukee Film Festival is a party, Day Two is when it gets down to business. AMERICAN FABLE was described as something of a Wisconsin set PAN’S LABYRINTH and that was enough to get me out to the Times Cinema for a later show.
Alas, that PAN’S LABYRINTH comparison was something of a double edged sword. AMERICAN FABLE isn’t in the league with that masterpiece and uses its fantasy visuals for more purely symbolic purposes. The story, set on a Wisconsin farm during the farm crisis era of the early 1980s, is more of a straight coming of age / morality tale where a young girl (Peyton Kennedy) discovers that her family is holding a rich land speculator (Richard Schiff) in an old silo as part of a kidnapping scheme that may help save their farm. She then must decide what’s the right thing to do as she makes friends with the victim.
There’s much to admire in AMERICAN FABLE even if it can’t live up to all comparisons. First of all, it’s hard to go wrong on a coming of age tale when you nail the lead role and Peyton Kennedy is really terrific. In the Q & A afterwards it was revealed that she’ll be starring in an upcoming Netflix series and it’s obvious why. She has the star power to hold the camera and that’s a rare thing for an 11 year old. She also ends up having nice chemistry with Richard Schiff. The film is often at its strongest when it’s just the two of them on screen.
The film is also very well shot. Set on a Wisconsin farm, the film really captures the feel of the height of summer with endless fields to run through. There are strong images of a horned female horseback rider that Peyton may aspire to be. It also cleverly takes advantage of the midwest shooting locaiton by using the House on the Rock as production value.
Unfortunately, the film kind of stumbles working through its major plot points. The kidnapping plot never seems all that tense or interesting until the end and the film kind of sags in the middle without a lot to do. The film also makes a huge misstep in presenting the older brother, played by Gavin MacIntosh, as a pure sociopath. It’s a totally miscalculated role from the writing standpoint, the first thing he does is threaten his sister’s hand with an axe, and an acting standpoint, it’s one note from beginning to end. If there was an arc and warmth between brother and sister, maybe it would have worked, as we can understand him being desperate to save his family while his sister struggles with the moral implications, but there’s no choice made by the character. He’s evil from beginning to end. And it simply doesn’t work in this context.
In the end, AMERICAN FABLE ends up being something of a mixed bag. The fable aspects are strong as is the lead character, but the film around Peyton Kennedy struggles to come together. Certainly it’s worth a look, but you can’t help thinking that there’s a better movie lurking in this material.
AMERICAN FABLE will be showing twice more at the 2017 Milwaukee Festival. The next screening is Sunday, October 1, 2017 at 3 pm at the Oriental Theatre followed by a final screening on Tuesday, October 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm at the Times Cinema. Tickets can be purchased online at the Milwaukee Film Festival website or at box office locations at various venues. The 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from September 28 to October 12, 2017.