Sometimes a coming-of-age story doesn't project just what it is about the main character's story that's so gripping that it needed to be told. America Brown is a film like that which, though filled with some subtle, believable performances, feels like it's running just below a boil throughout.
It begins with a clear homage to Midnight Cowboy, with Texas high school football star Ricky (Ryan Kwanten) riding a bus into New York City dressed in his rodeo finest. But unlike the boisterous Joe Buck in the earlier, kinkier film, Ricky is morose and somber. Through flashbacks we sense that he's running away from something although the script holds onto details and backstory for much of the film. Ricky hunts down John (CSI's Hill Harper), a former star player from his high school turned Catholic priest, in Brooklyn but it's not entirely clear what he hopes to learn: Does he want to glean some of this idol's greatness? Does he want to learn why this once-promising player has left the game? It's nice that Ricky doesn't have fully clear motives (and in an effort to leave the film's modest suspense intact I won't say why exactly Ricky left town.)
But whatever the reason for Ricky's flight, it's clear that the innocent kid needs to experience something outside of his small town upbringing. He quickly meets a quirky Brooklyn girl named Vera (Natasha Lyonne) who takes a liking to him and claims the rube as her own. They share an easy chemistry that feels awkward at times (which fits given the fact that they barely know each other) but even so there's something relaxed and interesting about them together. When he's with Vera, or when he's hanging out with John, Ricky seems to be unsure of where he's going.
It is clear, however, that there's a lot of pressure on Ricky back home. His football coach Bo (played with weird menace by Leo Burmester) has big plans for him and won't accept Ricky's disappearing act. Bo is an example of a vicious coach who puts his own desire for success and his greed ahead of the well-being of his players. He had previously coached John as well as Ricky's older brother Daniel (Michael Rapaport, effective in a few short scenes) neither of whom came out of the football program unscathed.
If Bo's uses for Ricky are less than altruistic, Ricky's mother (Karen Black) misses him greatly and shares a couple of emotional conversations with him. But Black is a bit of a chronic over-actor and she undermines some of the subtle, low-key work by the other actors. The cast, in fact, is one of the film's strong points. Burmester and Rapaport are good, as is Frankie Faison as Bo's assistant coach. Hill, whose role is a little too dour to really offer any magnetism, still gives a thoughtful performance. Lyonne is good in her slightly off-kilter role, although her face is bloated in an odd way that makes her look older and more ragged than her years. I think she might be spending a little too much time in Taradise.
The other main character is Rosie, an underwritten role for French actress Elodie Bouchez who might be familiar to recent viewers of Alias (if there are any out there.)
The bulk of the film is written for Ricky, a role that Kwanten does a nice job of inhabiting. He has a soft face and young, enthusiastic demeanor that seems bursting behind the veneer of aw-shucks politeness. He manages to indicate that he has confusing, conflicting feelings without telegraphing melodramatic emotions. It would have been easy for the actor playing Ricky to brood too much but Kwanten doesn't fall for that trap.
The film does, however, have a tendency to act like there's more thematically at stake that there is. I'm not sure if any grand statements are made successfully about the nature of people, even though the pacing and script seem to indicate that there's a lot more below the surface. This sort of indie-film posturing doesn't pay off here, as the film's characters are more modest than that and the story doesn't really go too far.
Similarly, some odd choices in character names come off as pretentious and obvious: Ricky's full name is the film's title, perhaps a lame attempt to take his boy-next-door appeal to the next level. And John's last name is Cross, an already overloaded name for a priest even without his introduction being "J.C. was the greatest quarterback to ever play Texas ball!" God bless Texas, indeed!
Even when the film gets spookier than it can handle, it's always a cinematic experience: Cinematographer Richard Rutkowski has a real eye for colors and compositions, crafting a lovely film out of simple locations and sets. Definite care went into the crafting of the film as a visual experience and it shows.
Unfortunately, the transfer is non-anamorphic widescreen. Why was this film not presented in an anamorphic transfer? I have no idea. Since the cinematography is one of the film's strong points and the transfer is pretty good (mostly crisp images and warm, engaging colors) not taking that extra step in the transfer was a real mistake.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is good. Voices are clear and use of sound effects is subtle but effective. There are some audio flashbacks that play in the surrounds and create a nice atmosphere, but for the most part it's a simple mix that works.
The disc includes a nine-minute making of video in which I discovered that Kwanten is actually Australian. Hearing his Aussie accent is quite shocking, given his convincing Texas drawl. Very impressive. There's also an outtake which shows Lyonne and Bouchez' characters getting to know each other better. The scene is unnecessary and was wisely cut, although spending a little more time with Bouchez wouldn't have been a bad idea. Her character is barely sketched out.
An America Brown trailer is included, as well as trailers for Mysterious Skin, Ma Mere and Death of a Dynasty. All extra features are non-anamorphic widescreen.
In the end America Brown is one of those films that feels a little unnecessary. The main character is fairly interesting and the performances and cinematography are good, but overall this isn't a story we haven't seen before and it doesn't go as far as it could have gone. Maybe I've just seen too many films at this point but each new coming-of-age story about a character escaping a murky past blends into all the ones that came before. Director Paul Black has a good hand with actors and the camera. Let's see if he can turn his attention to more unique subject matter next time. At least this is a good calling card and should be interesting to fans of independent cinema.