Friday, March 4, 2022

American Girl: Movie Review

Slow and distressing, but also well-made, compelling and tender.
Fen, a 13-year-old Taiwanese girl living in America, is forced to move back home when her mother gets cancer. American Girl can be hard to get into since it’s a slow drama about death, dying, grief, depression and anger. A lot of unpleasant, negative emotions with no reprieve, except it’s such a well-made movie, and the more you watch, the more powerful and tender it gets.   2021

Directed by: Feng-I Fiona Roan

Screenplay by: Bing Li, Feng-I Fiona Roan

Starring: Caitlin Fang, Kaiser Chuang

It’s a very thoughtful meditation on a mother-daughter relationship ripped to shreds because of the nature of impending death and the choices that are then forced to be made. It packs a punch but also knows when to pull back given how heavy the subject matter is.

I definitely felt it was going to be too bleak and depression-filled for me. A common genre that is often too distressing to like, but this one is different just enough to overcome how angry and hopeless it seems from the onset. The cultural differences are interesting and are the primary factor to keep watching.

Fen was popular in California, had friends, plans, and obsessed with the idea of an American life. She got good grades too. The heading back to school in Taipei is a massive eye-opener for both of us. There are strange rules like the girls must cut their hair short (which I still have no clue what that’s about) and you have to hold both hands out to receive books. There are some strict rules like dictation starts every day at 7:30am, and then the startling reveal that even in 2003 it was accepted practice that teachers beat students with a ruler for getting wrong answers. No wonder Fen likes her American life more, and maybe her good grades aren’t just because school’s easier, but at some point, corporal punishment isn’t an effective teaching method.

Fen’s relationships with her parents, both mother and father, are fraught for many obvious reasons. It’s heavy to get through, but it also becomes compelling to see how Fen is going to arrive at a more sympathetic approach to the situation. She’s only 13 – and it’s such an interesting age to pick since she lacks the self-awareness to see how selfish she’s being, but eventually she’s going to get there. The lead actress Caitlin Fang is really good, especially for her age; possibly one of the best I’ve seen.

It is slow and I was hoping the SARS storyline would become significant faster; however, all the big emotional beats occur at the right time. I can’t recommend this to everyone given the depressing nature of the film, but American Girl is a well-made movie that pulls back when it needs to, it ends not a beat too late or too early, and the cultural divide angle is interesting enough to get started with it and then stay with it.

Available on Netflix

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