American Fable is about 11-year old Gitty and Gitty’s family. But there’s more going on. You might, if you’ve read any of the SXSW reviews, think I’m going to mention the gorgeous shot selection. That this isn’t just a story but a vision. Yes, I will mention that, but that wasn’t my point. Superficially, American Fable is about Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) and her family. But on the whole, American Fable is about the farm.
What’s it mean to live on the farm? What’s the struggle? What’s the benefit? How does this shape and form an individual? A family? A community? A nation? So it’s not just that American Fable has gorgeous shot selection. The shot selection imparts the beauty of the territory—the vegetation, the space, how the green of the fields meshes with the blue sky. But we get the danger as well. Dilapidated structures, ruined homes, a dark figure on horseback who roams the land. This tension in the mise-en-scene externalizes the tension we see at both the heart of Gitty and of her family.
For example, Gitty’s upbringing on the farm has been beneficial for her imagination. She’s dreamy, creative, and thoughtful. She’s also bonded with animals, developing her compassion and empathy. But the flip side of the farm is that Gitty’s had a lack of worldly experiences. Her formal education is meh. Her cultural experiences are probably less than the miles she lives from the closest movie theater. She has very few friends, no social life. Who is there for her to be friends with? There are few people her age, much less people of her temperament.
On the flip side of Gitty is her brother, Martin (Gavin MacIntosh). The isolation that’s fostered Gitty’s creativity has born something much more violent in Martin. He’s replaced boredom with thoughts of war. Where Gitty has connected with the animals, Martin’s grown indifferent to them much less to the value of their lives. Martin’s desperate for attention, for validation, for an opportunity to impact something in the world since he’s grown up practically swallowed up by the enormity of the farm land. And yet he isn’t without his admirable qualities. He’s bold. Confident. Willing to take action. Passionate. Similar to Gitty, but definitely the flip side of the coin.
The dichotomy we see between these two but also within them is present in their parents (Kip Pardue, Marci Miller) as well. And it’s not a mistake that both kids are drawn to the only two people we see from outside their world. Gitty can’t deny the affinity she feels for Jonathan (Richard Schiff), someone who is clearly from a city. And Martin is head-over-heels obsessed with the exotic Vera (Zuleikha Robinson). It makes sense, given their conflicting natures, that Gitty is terrified of Vera while Martin loathes Jonathan.
But American Fable extends the impact of the farm beyond just how it has sculpted these children and this family. The farm land is part of a much larger macro-economic conversation that’s happening in the film and that leads to the kidnapping that’s the plot’s core. This kidnapping affects the national news. It has, within that diegetic world, grabbed hold of the national conversation and zeitgeist.
What’s cool about all of this is that by focusing on the farm and its influence on these lives, American Fable is really asking you to consider the role of where you were raised had on who you are now. How did Canal Fulton, Ohio shape me? What are the positives? What are the negatives? And how do the seemingly simple goings on of my 5,500 person town affect the larger cities around us? What about the state? What about the country? Weirdly, this is why American Fable made me think of The Offspring’s song “The Kids Aren’t Alright”.
When we were young the future was so bright
The old neighborhood was so alive
And every kid on the whole damn street
Was gonna make it big and not be beat
Now the neighborhood’s cracked and torn
The kids are grown up but their lives are worn
How can one little street
Swallow so many lives?
Not every upbringing is as disastrous as wherever The Offspring grew up. Nor are most as dramatic as what we see with Gitty and Martin. But each of us is absolutely aware of the pitfalls of where we grew up. I think this is why American Fable has stuck with and had a strange hold over many of its viewers. Whether or not we realize it as we’re watching, or even after, American Fable echoes the hope and fears of our own past back to us. It sparks something of our childhood in our adult minds. It’s such a trip. And not one many films or narratives can send you on.