FROM THE MGM STABLE
MY AMERICAN COUSIN (1985)
CAST: MARGARET LANGRICK, JOHN WILDMAN etc.
DIRECTION : SANDY WILSON.
Canada, to me, is North America’s perennially overlooked but always underrated behemoth, a place so open to diversity and so ingrained in the manner of filmmaking opportunities it has provided for its counterpart United States that it’s often taken for granted. If pivotal statistics of demographics from my own nation go then as of today a large chunk of the North Indian population especially from the state of Punjab has thrived in Canada, integrating a whole robust community in foreign shores as leading citizens. Parts of British Columbia are teeming with these enterprising individuals and co incidentally MY AMERICAN COUSIN too is set here.
Picturesque, grand, intimate and distilled by a particular point in time, this location has meant so much to a multitude of people. Here in this screenplay the thrust is not so much on coming of age in its stereotype but navigating the confusions of a juncture where the mind yearns to become an adult and simultaneously the soul just can’t give up its tinkling, chiming innocence. Instead of a perfectly manicured, well groomed idyll of one’s own young days, the simplistic idea of nostalgia is more humbling and matter of fact. It was also the first time a Canada made, locally produced and created feature set in the country and featuring a cast belonging to one of the nicest nations in the world came to my notice. It helped that a revival of Canadian cinema vis a vis Barney’s Version(2010) starring Paul Giamatti, Dustin Hoffman and Rosemarie DeWitt had sprung to my attention so it was a welcoming meeting point to enjoy the pleasures of this 1985 feature .
In MY AMERICAN COUSIN, the differing viewpoints of people, that is often teased when an enigmatic stranger enters the arena, is broached. We live a certain way, they do it differently, we say. Ultimately, the location hardly matters or the differences . But for young Sandy( Margaret Langrick) going on 13, the windswept charm, good looks and easy charm of the Californian blonde Butch is a key to unlock a siren for liberation. Aren’t the cool ones right by the surf and sand of California, as we often see? That cultural specimen is confirmed by the presence of Butch Walker(John Wildman) . James Dean is the closest approximation the viewer will make with this lad. He is the American cousin of the title and like people of his nationality are often venerated in the mental tracts of other denizens, the Canadians too look up to him or atleast reserve a condescending air when in doubt like Sandy’s parents. He is a guest who overstays his welcome during a summer break but emerges as a central figure for Sandy. SANDY and BUTCH make a team that attests to the gaps in their age as well as a commonality of being free spirits.
Hence, the ennui of the young girl, who feels like the youngest and most repressed member of the town, transitions to jaunts around the countryside with her own coterie of friends and with his sparkling red convertible, they make the most out of their environs. While I watched it, I wondered as to how could Sandy possibly be enervated by her beauteous sorroundings. How could she ever feel inept living within such an idyllic location? But we see it from her perspective even if her pre adolescent angst doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the world. Her repression and loneliness within a family of older siblings is understandable and will be to anyone who has ever been in the throes of this age bracket. Frankly we all have our own vignettes. A location doesn’t exactly define a personality and Sandy is bursting with wonder and precocity like all of us were at that age. The American Cousin comes and opens a little doorway for her to venture out of those four walls that often constricts young ladies, whether it was 50s Canada or today, anywhere . This film is about those memorable moments at a particular stage of life where everything is imbibed and nothing is left to be insignificant. A brief journey with Butch stays with Sandy as it did with Sandy, the director.
Here I felt happy as Sandy Wilson gets to tell her own tale without the onus put on another male filmmaker to recreate the events from scratch. There is a poignancy to it as a result of the autobiographical tinge and as a viewer remembering my tryst with this film on the MGM channel few years ago, that sentiment remains.
The particularity of the era and little knick knacks incorporated here charmed me ;for the first time in cinema, I felt like I was right in the thick of the fifties culture . Jiving at a local get together, the hairdos, Elvis records. As for the personal habits of the protagonist, the way SANDY bars and then opens the gates to her estate everytime her father has to drive in with the wagon stayed with me as an image . I have done the same everytime my father returned home from work, at our previous residence. Of course the lakeside car rides with Butch too.
I feel the eighties collectively wasn’t too far gone from the backlog of previous decades as is the norm with timelines and so there was a distinctive luster to the individuality of this film’s setting and the setting it adheres to. The cast members comprising of RICHARD DONAT and JANE MORTIFEE as the parents, BABZ CHULA and CAMILLE HENDERSON as the high school girl who falls for Butch are all competent. The narrative is wonderfully paced with naturalistic sounds and images complementing both the wonder and impermanence of this complex bond between two distant cousins, peas in a pod in spirit and temperament and related by the same youthful bloodline.
I remember its details like it was yesterday and it holds a special place in my heart. A certain penchant for simplicity of the eighties era shines in MY AMERICAN COUSIN. Above anything, this film prepared me for the same commitment to verisimilitude in the 50s set THE MAN IN THE MOON(1991) that I was privileged to watch on the MGM channel later on. It was similarly effective on all counts and will appear next on this blog.
The insights into an era tell us about that distinct moment in time while elucidating an universal nature of things and youth.. There is something unforgettable about MY AMERICAN COUSIN, stemming from its no nonsense screenplay and realism. I know what it is: it’s the sincerity of seeing lives in a collective mould and being gracious about it. Thank you MGM for bringing me such an inestimably definitive experience. I have watched it only once , in clear definition (since it is not so easily available currently) and I feel I will always revel in its good graces even if that first viewing remains the only instance. But life is long and fruitful and so I’m counting on revisiting it very well on my own terms, with a renewed vigour.
This is cinema meant not for emphasis but for collecting a collage of genuinely realized moments, transported to us through the ease of a natural storyteller. SANDY WILSON takes that responsibility handsomely.
LEST I FORGET TO MENTION, MY AMERICAN COUSIN also won several Genie Awards ( Canadian equivalent of the Oscars)