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An American Affair

Dir: William Olsson

Rating: 2.0

Screen Media Films

93 Minutes

Set in a hazily imagined 1963, An American Affair thankfully avoids wallowing in period nostalgia, although its hijacking of real-world events and lurid, shocky attempts at seriousness are equally egregious.

The film centers around 13-year-old Adam Stafford, enrolled at a parochial school somewhere in the vicinity of D.C., engaging in the first battles of adolescence with his strict, buttoned-down journalist parents. Its big conceit is the conflation of this stormy awakening with that of the rest of his generation, if not the entire country, in the turbulent years following the Bay of Pigs and Kennedy’s assassination. This is tackled with an apparent disregard for how gutted this lode has become, endlessly sentimentalized, doted on, even mined on a weekly basis in The Wonder Years. Faced with this exhausted storyline, the film edges further and further toward the macabre in order to distinguish itself.

What results is a cluttered combination of three genres – the coming of age story, the historical bystander piece and the political thriller. Adam, handled competently and realistically by Cameron Bright, is presented as a typical teenager, mischievous, naïve and, of course, very horny. It’s by virtue of the latter that he takes up with Catherine Caswell, a neighbor, whom he discovers by spying from his window and gets close to by taking on a yard work project. Caswell is a marked woman in these straight-laced times, a leggy, blond divorcée, dabbling in abstract art and LSD and apparently functioning as JFK’s local backup for Marilyn Monroe. This injection of a political element, which is only hinted at in the first two acts, is handled on a manner that borders on silly, the first indication of an inability to deal with important issues. Meanwhile, the older woman acts as a gatekeeper to a parallel world shockingly different from the Stafford’s ordered bourgeois house, one filled with free jazz, Eastern decor and lurking CIA agents.

While the intrigue of Caswell’s affair hovers just above the action, the film mostly operates in the standard form of a specific brand of coming of age story. The older woman functions as both a surrogate mother and a sexual paragon for Adam’s introduction to manhood, which takes physical shape via a young girl in his suspiciously colorful class. But its not long before Adam’s busy hands drive off his love interest and he turns his full attention on Caswell, tilting the story into a creepily warped love triangle that pushes youthful curiosity too far, having Adam steal her diary, sneak around in her house and watch through a closet-door, Blue Velvet style, as she has sex with an anonymous man. This fussing with taboo is pushed even further when the two briefly kiss in wake of JFK’s shooting, signaling that things have crossed over into leering melodrama.

The stolen diary is used to bridge this aspect with the film’s disjointed ending, where the political subplot suddenly takes on primary significance. This all plays as sketchy and ridiculous, with the aforementioned CIA agents and a stereotypical Cuban expatriate dancing menacingly in a cloak and dagger ring around the no longer innocent Adam. Secrets are hinted at, threats are made, and by the end the film has gone farther than necessary to assure us that how serious it is.

There are some admirable traits: the use of color to distinguish Adam’s two worlds and some well-shot moments, like the heavily symbolic scene where lines of children returning from recess, shot from above, dissolve as the news of the assassination is spread. But it’s hard to care in an uninspired story whose grooves are so well worn and means so obviously tawdry. Form is dead, Caswell repeats again and again, a forced mantra that’s suggestive both of our protagonist’s newfound understanding of the world’s structure and the film’s strange, if unsuccessful, mixing of genre tropes.

by Jesse Cataldo