Two newish films that are circulating – the fresh adaptation of It by director Andy Muschietti and the independent, Wisconsin-set American Fable, screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Sunday (see bottom for another showing) – submerge their audiences in the world of children as they fumble their way through a series of moral trials, ending in something like a coming of age. In It, based on the Stephen King novel, a town’s children are being preyed upon by a malevolent entity living in the sewers, until the youngsters band together to banish him from the public works. The lessons are to trust one another’s accounts of fear and trauma, to listen to the lonely new kid who does a lot of reading in the library, and to never confront alone what can be overcome as a group.
American Fable from director Anne Hamilton deals instead in deep isolation, and is set in the 1980s, in part, to avoid interference from cell phones. In rural Wisconsin, family farmers are losing their farms, and the 11-year-old protagonist, Gitty (Peyton Kennedy), accidentally involves herself in this struggle when she discovers a man imprisoned in an old silo on her family’s farm. At first, their relationship is clouded: Gitty must decide whether to turn him in, and the man must decide to what extent he should try to befriend or exploit (or befriend then exploit) Gitty, who could potentially bring hellfire down on his head by telling her parents.
As the movie goes on, Gitty’s folks sink deeper and deeper into skullduggery, and Gitty must choose for herself what she thinks is true and just. Her father tells her that the people who buy up farms (like the man in the silo) are terrible people, and he cuts a deal with a shadowy human trafficker who is nonetheless brisk and professional. Still, like all the family members, Gitty’s dad is following his own moral vision, his own fable.
There’s a mysterious well in the movie and a dark, horned rider, and a few other lovely, fantastical trappings, and the dialogue is peppered with riddles and fables.
The camera is alive and bounding, swooping at one point across a dinner table as if it were a battlefield, and some of the highest shots came courtesy of tall farm equipment on loan from helpful farmers. Not much happens off the family farm (which the dad insists is the greatest place in the world), although there’s a dream sequence filmed at House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wis.
A traditional “fable” conveys a precise moral, but American Fable is more about the grays of personal responsibility. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t precisely constructed: There are many interlocking symbols and motifs – the color red, various chess games, and a couple of road-killed deer – and the plot weaves in ways that some might object to. It depends on your vantage. A large part of the movie is about missing the signs leading to something better and wiser, and how the goodness of a family can be chewed up by chaos. Ultimately, a retired police officer (if she truly is) intervenes and emerges as a force for common sense.
Many of the symbols play out on the surface, fable-like, or very close to it. Gitty, for example, has a special pet chicken named “Happy,” and as you can probably guess, things don’t go so well for the bird.
Go See It: American Fable
- Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1:30 p.m.