My American Cousin (1985)
Directed by Sandy Wilson
Cast: Margaret Langrick, John Wildman, Richard Donat, Jane Mortifee, T.J. Scott.
1985 90 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 17, 1999.
The winner of six 1985 Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), director Sandy Wilson's "My American Cousin" is a nostalgic, delicately-paced drama that plays exactly as if it were a memoir of the central character, many years down the road. Light on a so-called plot, but heavy on character observation, the film works a gentle spell around its viewer, and ends up leaving an unexpected lasting impression.
Set in a peaceful Canadian ranch town in the summer of 1959, a time when rock 'n' roll music was still looked upon as a nasty racket by many, we first meet Sandy Wilcox (Margaret Langrick) writing in her journal before bed, in big letters, "NOTHING HAPPENS HERE!" Right on the verge of becoming a teenager, Sandy yearns to not be treated like a child, and is starting to grow interested in the opposite sex. This interest is only further carried along by the appearance of her 17-year-old American cousin, Butch (John Wildman), a suave, captivating young man who, with his hair slicked perfectly the way he likes it, has obviously seen James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" one too many times. Driving up to the Wilcox's home late at night in his extravagant cherry red convertible, Butch tells Sandy's parents (Richard Donat, Jane Mortifee) that he is up on vacation for a while, and is welcomed to stay with them. Sandy is immediately taken aback by Butch, and gains her first crush, but when Butch finds out that she's only 12-years-old ("I can't believe I'm talking to a little kid"), he doesn't seem to return the feeling.
This is the basic setup for "My American Cousin," and there isn't too much more to say about the story. Although there are a few discoveries about Butch towards the conclusion, the film isn't concerned about such petty things, instead choosing to wisely follow Sandy through the summer, as she grows up a little along the way. To be sure, not exactly groundbreaking material, but not too many films have been able to capture the innocence and sweetness of being 12, when you're too old for childish play, and too young to do much else. The film captures this age so marvelously and accurately, from the arguments that Sandy often gets into with her mother, whom she feels doesn't understand her, to her precociousness and naivety. In one scene, she complains that her life and the scenery is absolutely boring (although with the mountains, lakes, and endless countryside, it is obviously very much gorgeous), and it is only until the ending that she realizes she should have enjoyed the final bit of her childhood while it lasted.
In her motion picture debut, Margaret Langrick is a radiant presence to behold (and deservedly won the Genie Award for Best Leading Actress). Both unaffected and polished, Langrick gives won of the best performances (of that age range) I've seen, and she also has a natural comic ability, gaining several laughs just from her on-the-mark mannerisms and facial expressions.
In the other role at the forefront is John Wildman, who is very appropriate for the role. Certainly the more underwritten of the two, Butch is nonetheless portrayed as a realistic 17-year-old, concerned with very little but girls and embarrassed when he is coaxed into giving Sandy and her three giggly friends a ride in his car. In their sequences together, Langrick and Wildman form a charismatic rapport that develops with ease and delight.
The inevitable parting of Sandy and Butch is also portrayed truthfully, without a sign of manipulation in sight. To be vague and not give anything away, Sandy and Butch do not say goodbye as we always see in movies, but go their separate ways as it happens in real life. Fans of syrupy, heavy drama may be displeased by the film's ending, but those that prefer realism will be utterly satisfied.
With entertaining '50s songs filling the soundtrack, writer-director Sandy Wilson, previously a documentary filmmaker, has created a definite time and place, and knows how to write genuine, unforced dialogue. "My American Cousin," I wouldn't doubt, is a personal film for Wilson, perhaps even autobiographical, as it never strays from its deft, subtle path in order to create big, flashy plot occurrences. It's as it should be, and nothing more.
© 1999 by Dustin Putman