Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 7/14/05 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.
Directed by Jordan Brady and written by Scott Sandoe, American Girl is the story of a young high school dropout who becomes pregnant as she and her family visit their incarcerated father for an annual picnic in prison. The film explores one girl's desire to find her place only to have intense suicidal thoughts while trying to remember the goodness her father had. Starring Jena Malone Brad Renfro, Chris Mulkey, Clifton Collins Jr., Michelle Forbes, Alicia Witt, Erik von Detten, and Kevin Gage. American Girl, despite its premise and Malone's performance, falls flat as another mediocre independent feature.
Rena Grubb (Jena Malone) is a high school dropout seeking some escape from her trailer park existence as she lives her mother Madge (Michelle Forbes) and her half-sister Barbie (Alicia Witt). Despite having a secret affair with popular high school boy Kenton (Erik von Detten), Rena yearns for a normal, happier ife as her older brother Jay (Brad Renfro) returns home from visiting his uncle. Rena's father John (Chris Mulkey) is serving two-life terms for murder as Rena hopes to go to the family picnic despite Madge's feelings about John who still writes letters to Rena. When Rena learns she is pregnant with Kenton's child and the family finds out, Madge decides to keep it a secret as they decide to go to the picnic.
John is excited to see his family as he decides to have his pal Buddy (Clifton Collins Jr.) on board to meet the family. While Buddy is one of the few prisoners that the guards can trust through bribes, he befriends Buddy who feels insecure around his dad. When Rena tells her father about her pregnancy, things don't go well as she thought it would be as John asks Madge what is going on with the family. While Rena meets another visitor in Hildegarde (O-Lan Jones) as she hopes to get some comfort from her father, the picnic doesn't go well as she thought it would be. Madge converses with a guard named Richard (Kevin Gage) while later learning that John has been having an affair as Buddy and Jay learn who the mistress is. With all of the turmoil going on within the family, Rena becomes more fragile over everything she's going through.
While Jordan Brady does manage to capture sympathy and great dramatic moments, the film often falls into the realm of dreary, melodrama with no direction right at the end. The film's script, which claims is based on true events, is filled with some of the dramatic cliches of TV prison dramas and the limited budget of an independent feature, depending on its premise. Plus, often comes out with some clumsy dialogue except for some of the narration for Malone. While the film does look good in its technical side, it doesn't help its meandering direction to the point that there's only a few memorable characters to enjoy or to sympathize with. Plus, due to its small budget, it’s no wonder the film has a terrible soundtrack filled with nothing but mediocre, middle-of-the-road modern rock music.
While the film has a nice cast with small performances from Kevin Gage, O-Lan Jones, and Micole Mercucio as a neighbor, the film also has a typical, lame performance from pretty-boy actor Erik von Detten who is merely the poor boy's Devon Sawa. Chris Mulkey doesn't bring anything to his role as Rena's father since he is often too over-the-top in his performance while the script just forces him to play a very awful man with nothing to offer. Alicia Witt is often good in whatever film she does but is merely nothing more than a typical, lazy slut as Witt does nothing except humiliate herself. Brad Renfro is good in his role as the sexually-confused older brother as is Michelle Forbes as Malone's stern, hopeful mother. The best supporting performance easily goes to Clifton Collins Jr., who brings in a great charm and sleaze to his performance as a prisoner who knows how to stir things up while flirting with Brad Renfro.
The film's true heart and soul is Jena Malone. While it's not a far cry from the self-destructive, dysfunctional roles she's been playing in films like Donnie Darko or Saved!. Malone does use her ability to give her character every amount of sympathy, no matter how flawed her character is, she needed. Bringing a combination of naivete, desperation, and optimism, Malone shows her ability as a very serious, complex actress.
Despite a good cast and a decent premise, American Girl is a very mediocre film from Jordan Brady. Due to its attempt to be very dramatic and edgy at the same time, it often drowns itself into despair despite Jena Malone's engaging performance. It's a film that doesn't really offer much to people other than fans of Malone though it's not a film that will mark as one of her more memorable works. In the end, American Girl is an OK but over-wrought drama from Jordan Brady.
(C) thevoid99 2011