Filmmakers will never grow tired of the coming-of-age narrative. Hardly surprising, as it’s one of the most universal experiences there is. And yet, every person experiences it in a way that feels uniquely transformative and personal. It’s rich territory for interpretation and revisiting, but it’s crucial that a filmmaker defines what sets their narrative apart: a story they’re telling that hasn’t been told before. Marcella Cytrynowicz is the latest director to try her hand at the genre with American Cherry, a moody, tragic love story that follows a pair of troubled teens in small-town America.
As far as premises go, it’s not entirely unique, but it doesn’t have to be. The simplest, most familiar stories can work beautifully— if they’re told right. The players in this particular story are Finn (Hart Denton) and Eliza (Sarah May Sommers). Finn is the archetypal bad boy, tortured by a tragic upbringing, expelled from school, aggressive and volatile, but instantly drawn to Eliza. Eliza is tortured in her own way, coping with her parents’ separation and a strained relationship with her mother. Finn reads Vonnegut and talks about how he finds dead things beautiful, Eliza tells her friends they just don’t understand Finn, and that she feels safe with him.
If it sounds like I’m listing a handful of clichés, it’s because I am. From the first scene, American Cherry trips over the fact that its characters just don’t feel like characters. There’s certainly a way to write pretentious teenagers correctly — John Green grew a small empire by letting his ludicrously eloquent tragedy-ridden high schoolers give voice to the messiest, most complicated emotions that teenagers face. But the issue here is that there’s no substance to the eye-rolling affectations in which the teens speak. A video confession of the events in the film’s tragic conclusion acts as a framing narrative, meaning we’re constantly lumbered upon by Finn’s monologue. He bemoans how tortured he is, how much he loves Eliza, how sorry he is — but instead of sympathy, it inspires boredom at best and, at worst, mockery. Teenagers simply do not talk like this. Now that alone is not an insurmountable issue; I didn’t spend COVID lockdown gorging myself on Dawson’s Creek because Pacey Whittier’s love declarations reminded me vividly of my peers in high school. Realism is not the end-all, be-all of a coming-of-age narrative. The real issue here is that absolutely no one talks this way, and what’s more, no one behaves this way.
The fact is, the longer the film went on, the more I realized that not one character feels like a real person; nothing about this town feels real. At one point, a random bartender who appears seemingly for the sole purpose of delivering this line looks balefully past the camera and muses “This place has a way of wrapping itself around you. I feel like there’s a big old umbilical cord connecting my belly with this town.” Beyond the ridiculousness of the actual scene and the comical stiffness of the delivery, it exposes a fundamental issue: when nothing about the town or the people feels real, none of the tension holds any stakes. I didn’t even realize that I was supposed to be registering the small-town setting as a source of angst until this line because there’s no sense of place, no feeling that it’s oppressive or at all present in the characters’ psyche. Then again, it’s not exactly clear that these characters have much of a psyche at all.
By far the worst victim of this poor writing is Eliza’s mother, functionally the film’s antagonist. She’s cartoonishly bad at being a mom, exhibiting negative traits so rapidly it seems like they’ve thrown everything in the kitchen sink to see what sticks. She makes a fatphobic quip, exhibits signs of alcoholism, waltzes out the door on an ill-advised date while ignoring her daughter’s pleas not to, has embarrassing breakdowns at the dinner table, gets wasted in public leaving Finn and Eliza to bring her home, and, as the cherry on the top, disapproves of the young lovers’ relationship. It’s not necessarily that no person could possibly do all these things, but they’re revealed to us with all the restraint and delicacy of artillery fire. She might as well have “bad mom” and a frowny face tattooed across her forehead. Seriously, in a flashback, she blames a young Eliza for murdering a butterfly — what’s supposed to feel tragic and human feels pantomimic and absurd.
Although it clocks in at a tight ninety minutes, American Cherry slogs along. There is an interesting artistic eye to its aesthetics and some creative cinematographical choices. But when a film contingent on exploring the intricacies of universal human experiences fails to depict anything very human at all, the end result is a hollow shell that’s easier to laugh at than empathize with.
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