Year: 2017
Director(s): Anne Hamilton
Writer(s): Anne Hamilton
Region of Origin: US

Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 96 mins

Synopsis: 11-year old Gitty discovers a family secret that forces her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew

Nothing is what it seems in American Fable, a timeless story about good, evil and the lives that get lost in the middle. In her breathtaking debut, writer/director Anne Hamilton picks apart the American Dream by staring down a cynical world through the innocence of a child. The film is assured in more ways than one, balancing suspense with sweet-natured wonder, and a fantasy element that just peaks through the surface. Expect a bit of Malick, a dash of del Toro, and a ticking time bomb of a plot that could implode at any moment. Presented as a period piece, the film thankfully doesn’t force nostalgia or self-aware references down our throats, but finds weight through small town desperation and the struggle against an uncertain future. Sealing the deal is star Peyton Kennedy’s breakout performance, giving Hamilton’s thriller a haunting resonance that’s hard to shake.

Set somewhere in the 1980s rural Midwest, Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) is taught by her father, Abe (Kip Pardue), that nothing is more important than their family and farm. Still, Gitty can’t help but dream bigger than her small town, hoping to one day see what lies beyond. Her curiosity peaks when she discovers a man trapped in the silo just beyond their farm’s border. His name is Jonathan (Richard Schiff), and he treats Gitty with kindness, despite his delicate situation. As he tries to figure out how to escape, Gitty befriends him, bringing him food and other necessities as they share the secret of his captivity. Naturally, there’s more to Jonathan’s story (explaining why Gitty can’t tell anyone about him), carrying monumental implications which will affect Gitty and her family’s lives forever.

I’m reluctant to get to specific about plot details, because the thrill lies in uncovering the story’s secrets, but I can say that Hamilton’s film is beautiful because of its unique perspective, specifically how it renders moral complexity with stark metaphor. Because of this, the film juggles a lot, transcending any single genre while servicing each character in different ways. Most prominent, the film is a coming-of-age story that takes a look at whether good can thrive in times of desperation. In addition, this is a story where good people do bad things, driven to make horrible decisions out of both fear and love. As Gitty’s world view begins to crumble, she’s forced to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and it’s through her that the film subverts our idea of morality, showing a delicate balance between good and evil. On top of it all, the fantasy elements are very low key, punctuating everything in ways that don’t detract from the film’s realism.

The film also excels through the performances of its two main stars, Peyton Kennedy and Richard Schiff. As Gitty, Kennedy anchors the film with her commanding presence. There’s a charm to her that is genuine, and it’s her purity that is the film’s through line, constantly searching for the good in her progressively complicated situation. She carries the film with ease, and there’s gotta be big things in store for this talented young woman. As Jonathan, Schiff plays with ambiguity and restraint. We can never quite figure the guy out, and it’s his moral complexity that keeps us on our toes. Schiff can be kind and generous one moment, and intimidating the next, but we’re always drawn to him no matter what. These two are the foundation of the film’s numerous ideas, and they own it.

American Fable finds power through restraint, telling a rich story that’s both sobering and gripping. To her credit, Hamilton says so much with so little, using imagination to break through limitation in the best way. At any rate, the film stands on its own as a pastoral thriller with thematic heft, and is sure to be the calling card of a filmmaker poised for big things.