Each of us Americans likely has a pretty definitive idea of what we believe our country represents. So do Hal Hartley and the stable of writers Maryland’s Center Stage theater commissioned to collaborate on My America, not only a celebration of the theater’s fiftieth anniversary but also a pastiche of American dreams, some deferred, some broken, some conniving, some malicious. Over the course of roughly twenty separate vignettes, all shot mostly in the same anchored, unblinking style, the film stitches together a vision of modern America from disparate cultural experiences in hopes of creating a unified whole, a portrait of life in our nation that draws on a broad palette of perspectives and backgrounds.
For the most part, it’s successful, though one wonders why this really needed to be a movie in the first place; Hartley, the man behind such indie darlings as Henry Fool, its sequel, Fay Grim, and the impending follow up to both, Ned Rifle, doesn’t feel like much of a presence here, playing the role of quiet documentarian rather than storyteller, and the micro narratives he captures could have just as easily been constructed on a theater stage instead of in front of a camera. My America doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like an episode of The Moth Radio Hour, unnecessarily transplanted to cinema. Everything about the enterprise’s choice of medium feels needless.
Fortunately, the content speaks for itself, so this is perhaps just a quibble. The film uses air-headed beauty pageant hopefuls, selfish trust fund babies, politically savvy spoken word poets, American soldiers, new mothers, hucksters, jingoists, and victims of the U.S. prison system as its stars; you won’t recognize anyone here by their face as much as through the yarns they each weave. Therein lies the source of My America’s efficacy. You know these people, some of them at least. You’ve engaged in casual conversations with them out on the street—which, coincidentally, happens to be one of the film’s favored framing devices—you’ve gone to school with them, you’re probably friends with one or two or three of them. You might even be related to one of them.
That’s the big idea driving the film beneath its surface. While My America is too short to possibly encapsulate contemporary American life and attitudes, it comes close enough within its sub eighty minute running time that it’s easy to self-identify with the ideas it espouses on one level or another. The overall picture Hartley and his co-conspirators paint here isn’t pretty; their concept of America is one where people are afraid to speak their minds, where injustice is a way of life, where we’re all too concerned with our own petty discomforts and stresses to give a damn about the person standing next to us. In that regard, your mileage with the film may vary depending entirely on what America means to you. Should your definition conflict with that of the writers, then their efforts might not be your cup of tea, though it’s hard to deny the reality presented by so many of the individual segments.
Among these, a few end up working out poorly compared to the rest, but that’s just symptomatic of My America’s needless commitment to film. A handful of the actors on display here feel too self-conscious, too aware that they’re acting out monologues, for their performances to work. Bereft of the all-seeing eye of Hartley’s lens, their speechifying might have worked out for the better, because their words ring with truth that their expressions don’t. That, in turn, underscores My America’s greatest strength, and the best reason to watch it to begin with—honest writing, occasionally over-fussed, that reflects a wealth of insight into where America has come from, where it’s going, and where it’s been. What does your America look like? Whether you recognize it or not, probably something very close to My America.
Directors: Hal Hartley
Writers: Greg Allen, Bekah Brunstetter, Kia Corthron, Dan Dietz, Marcus Gardley, Kirsten Greenidge, Rinne Groff, Danny Hoch, Naomi Iizuka, Rajiv Joseph, Jeremy Kareken, The 5th L, Neil LaBute, Kenneth Lin, James Magruder, D.J. Mendel, Polly Pen, Lynn Rosen, Alena Smith, Gwydion Suilebhan, Lauren Yee
Starring: Greg Allen, Jeb Brown, Kathleen Chalfant, John Ellison Conlee, Gia Crovatin, Alvin Epstein, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Damon Johnson, The 5th L, Angelo Lozada, Jefferson Mays, Kelly McCreary, Christy McIntosh, D.J. Mendel, Jennifer Mudge, Cody Nickell, Kristine Nielsen, Thomas Jay Ryan, Andrew Weems, Fred Weller, Johnny Wu
Release Date: July 4, 2014