Gone are the archaic days of assuming “direct-to-video” is synonymous with “poor quality”. Interesting, unique, and stylized indie debuts are becoming increasingly common, and writer/director Anne Hamilton’s feature debut American Fable is no exception.
American Fable is an ambitious film which tells the story of a lonely young girl named Gitty. Gitty’s family lives on a farm somewhere in rural America in the 80’s, and the 11-year-old spends summer days exploring the massive plot of land with the neighboring children. Unbeknownst to Gitty, her town is crippling under the weight of the 1980s farm crisis, during which there were many foreclosures. The problem is so bad in her area that 3 of her neighbors have committed suicide in the past few months. Sheltered from the reality of her family’s dire situation, Gitty discovers a man named Jonathan (Richard Schiff), whom she believes grants wishes, living in a silo on her farm. As the summer days stretch on, it becomes clear that the man in the silo is not magical but is, in fact, a land developer- one of the very people ruining Gitty’s farm town. In addition, it seems that Gitty’s father, Abe (Kip Pardue), has agreed to take this man hostage for a mysterious friend in exchange for a payout. Gitty, either not realizing the man is being held against his will or choosing to ignore this fact, visits him daily and the two form an unlikely bond.
This is a lovely film which smartly puts much of its faith behind young actress Peyton Kennedy, in the role of Gitty. She is impressively convincing as her character arcs from meek and trustful child to a more knowing, virtuous, and brave girl on the verge of her preteen years. Kennedy will break the hearts of viewers when they begin to see the world shattering the rose-colored glasses on Gitty’s face. Most notably, especially when considering a coming-of-age film, Kennedy manages to make Gitty seem endearing, rather than annoying or frustrating, in her naivety.
For instance, in a scene where a neighbor expresses concern that she’s heard voices out by the silo on Gitty’s family’s farm, Gitty proclaims that she, too, has heard talking out by the silo because “There’s man who lives there and he grants wishes.” This is towards the middle of the film, which is why it’s almost jarring to hear, because we assume that she must realize by this point that the man is neither powerful nor living there of his own free will. However, Kennedy delivers the lines with such conviction that we are reminded that Gitty is still merely a child who is learning the ways of the world around her. In fact, while her brother, Martin (Gavin Macintosh), expresses frustration at this announcement, our immediate instinct is to protect Gitty from his vitriol rather than to question her.
Additionally, the story is well-developed and tight, telegraphing later character arcs and interactions very strategically throughout. Particularly with Gitty, we can see how all of the exchanges she has with the other characters inform her later decisions and actions. It’s easy to see why she differs from her family as she is continually cast aside by them. We see this with Martin, who constantly instills fear in Gitty and calls her stupid and friendless; her mother, Sarah (Marci Miller), who points out that Gitty is not special and doesn’t seem to support her daughter’s big dreams to travel the world; her father, who loves Gitty and cherishes her but never really stands up for her when Martin is taunting her far more than is average for an older brother. Because of all this, Gitty is left vulnerable and is more likely to befriend anyone who gives her positive attention, as Jonathan does. While the rest of her family refers to him as a monster, Gitty insists Jonathan is her friend, even though she knows he is part of why farm life is so stressful for her family and neighbors.
It needs to be stated clearly that those who see that American Fable is released by IFC Midnight and assume it is going to be a Pan’s Labyrinth-style horror film (the trailer features a fantastical, horned woman on horseback) may be disappointed upon watching the film. American Fable is more a dramatic character study than the thriller it’s marketed to be, horror-adjacent only in that someone is being held captive (and that her brother is clearly a psychopath). If comparing to horror films, American Fable is like a gore-free and distinctly yellow-tinted The Eyes of My Mother. However, it is probably most like Crimson Peak, both in style and that it will likely cause a divide between people who reject its place in the horror and thriller genres.
American Fable is a beautiful, well-made feature which unfortunately seemed to fly under the radar this year. Although not groundbreaking, viewers who accept that it won’t shock or scare them will be pleasantly surprised with this film. This is a truly commendable debut and it will be wonderful seeing what director Anne Hamilton does next.
American Fable is now available on Netflix.