Anne Hamilton’s directorial debut is a film that floats between several recognizable, marketable genres without firmly landing on any single one in particular. American Fable is an 80s-set kids-on-bikes supernatural adventure film, except without any of the overt Amblin nostalgia that made Stranger Things a hot topic last winter. It feels like a Southern Gothic supernatural thriller at its edges, but its Midwest farmland setting & fairy tale tone distance it from that genre’s hallmarks. It flirts with the fairy tale horror tones defined by filmmakers like Terry Gilliam & Guillermo del Too, but never fully commits to the darkness of either influence. This genre-defiant, difficult to pin down quality is fascinating to watch unfold, because its various destinations are left wholly unpredictable. At the same time, its loopy dream logic paths through its own fantasy space can also be frustrating, since they never decisively choose a tonal direction to command its overall aesthetic. It’s easy to leave American Fable both vaguely let down by its ultimate effect, yet gleefully enthusiastic over the power Hamilton already wields behind the camera so early in her career.
In its experiments with a wide sampling of genres & tones, American Fable‘s one consistency is in sticking with the storytelling focus indicated by its title. Parables, fairy tales, bedtime stories, and even straightforward lies shape the logic & the narrative of its farmland tale of a young girl in crisis. Early on in American Fable, our young protagonist requests a bedtime story from her father that’s scary, but ultimately has a happy ending. As her own story unfolds, it becomes increasingly unlikely that it will meet both of those requirements itself, though it certainly follows the rhythms of a bedtime story as a narrative anchor. Suffering the shitty end of Reaganomics, the girl’s family is on the verge of losing its farm, its livelihood, to mythically greedy real estate developers who have been eating up the region. This leads to a version of the parable “The Lion and the Mouse,” except reimagined as “The Farmer and the Real Estate Mogul.” Our protagonist is asked to keep the secret that a wealthy man is being imprisoned in her farm’s empty silo, knowing that he’s likely to buy the land from under them if he’s ever freed. The imprisoned man is sweet to her. He buys her time & sympathy with the currency of well-told stories, but he’s still a potential danger if she grants him freedom, due to his basic nature as a wealthy businessman. Themes of power, control, and economics, as well as the negotiation & mechanism of the wealthy man’s imprisonment, are filtered through the dream logic rhythms of films like Paperhouse or MirrorMask. American Fable crumbles under any literal interpretation of its seemingly simplistic plot, but leaves behind an impressive impact in its wake.
The most immediately impressive aspect of American Fable is the way it captures an imaginative child’s POV. The film is often shot as if it were a child peering from under a table or through a cracked door while adults passionately, but quietly discuss a world they’ve been locked out of. The film also has the sweeping, breathless pacing of an 80min montage that, while undercutting the in-the-moment emotional impact of a few potentially powerful scenes, plays directly into a child’s eccentric view of the world. This perspective allows for the film’s haunted carnival imagery & its long stares at a horned witch on horseback who guards the silo-turned-prison to feel just as natural to its farmland setting as children catching fireflies in Mason jars at dusk. In an early scene an injured baby deer’s hospice is lit with the drastic dream world colors of a giallo film; the detail feels no more or less out of place than any of its outright fantasy spaces. This is likely a film made for an adult audience (not necessarily because of any “adult” content), but because of the tones & perspective Hamilton chooses to work with I feel like I might have been much more in tune with its headspace as a young child.
American Fable is an often exciting film, even it’s not a wholly satisfying one. Much like the recent Netflix-distributed indie Dig Two Graves, it reaches for an ambitious sense of otherworldly mystery & awe that sometimes outsizes its means, but it’s consistently impressive for reaching that far at all. Anne Hamilton undeniably shows promise in the potency her imagery. I also very much respect her confident looseness in narrative & genre constriction, even if I ultimately was left scratching my head over the totality of its effect. I didn’t especially love the film, but I was constantly fascinated by it, recalling the feeling of listening to an improvised bedtime story with no clear destination, but strange enough details to entertain along the way. I’m not sure this is the kind of film that’s going to attract big studio attention on its own merits, but I’d love to see what Hamilton could do in the future with the kinds of budgets del Toro & Gilliam have been afforded in the past. I’m sure it’d be a dream.