Artful and heart-wrenching ‘America’ defies the stereotypes of the ‘foreign film’

Sunday, November 20, 2016 - 8:23pm

Sometimes it can feel like moviegoers are divided into two camps: the casual viewer and the enlightened critic. Popular knowledge tells us viewers hate the pretentiousness of the critics and critics turn their noses down at the crass sensibilities of the audiences. Wars have raged (okay, not really, but many angry articles have been written over this, so the point still stands) over who movies are truly made for — the analysts or Joe Normal.

At their worst, most strawman form, casual viewers deride any form of analytic thought or non-mainstream cinema as pretentious, and critics dismiss popular movies at the outset simply because of their widespread appeal. 

This problem comes to a head with foreign films. Derided as boring and deeply depressing, they’re often thought to cater only to the tastes of the most pretentious of moviegoers, critics and that one dude in your English class who insists on calling movies “films” and has really strong opinions about how music died the day Britney Spears released her first singleSome aspects of this perception are fairly earned. Captial-F Foreign Films can very easily be dull, meandering, pretentious and sad. But of course, so can American films. 

No matter where the film originated, though, the idea that a movie is somehow more artful or important just because it’s sad, slow or subtitled is mostly just nonsense. Genre is irrelevant. It can be an action movie, a rom-com or a character drama — as long as it’s genuinely empathetic and engaging to its audience, the movie is functioning in exactly the way it’s supposed to.

This being said, the Polish film “America” is, at first glance, a compilation of everything pretentious and grating about foreign films. Directed by Aleksandra Terpinska (“Czech Swan”), “America” tells the story of two teenage girls, Anka (Marta Mazurek, “Warsaw by Night”) and Justine (Aleksandra Adamska, “Miasto 44”). They live in a small Polish town called America, where they spend their days making up dances to American pop songs and reenacting scenes from “The Matrix.”

Fed up with their negligent parents, the girls decide to run away from home. They hitchhike and are picked up by a series of increasingly scummy men, to the point where Justine is nearly raped in a truck stop motel called “The Las Vegas Hotel.”

Make no mistake, this is a heavy and dark film. Within the first three minutes, we learn that Anka and her mother frequently have to clean her father up after he’s made a drunken mess of himself, and that he comes into Anka’s room every night and sexually abuses her.  

So yes, “America” certainly fits the notions most apply to foreign films: painful and sad against a bleak grey setting. And yet, “America” is entirely unpretentious, lovingly made and tells a genuinely engaging — even haunting — story. Terpinska clearly understands that heavy subject matter on its own doesn’t make a movie meaningful, so every frame in the film is carefully considered for creating maximum emotional effectiveness. In other words, “America” is not for critics or average moviegoers — it’s for everyone.

Movies like “America” (or at least, movies that deal with such weighty subjects) are often voyeuristic and detached, almost clinical in their portrayal of horrific events. It’s the idea of filming a “low” subject matter in a highfaluting way, making violence, pain and suffering appear beautiful and digestible by virtue of emotional distance between the audience and what is happening on screen.

This isn’t necessarily a bad way to approach a story, and it works really well in a lot of movies — it’s essentially the thesis statement that drives David Fincher’s filmography. And yet, it’s a breath of fresh air to find a movie that places the audience directly in the minds of the characters so that we feel what they feel. 

The empathy comes through the details of Anka and Justine’s friendship. The outer space posters in Anka’s bedroom, the galaxy print of Justine’s jacket, the familiar way they shove each other around, the gangster rap they listen to — these details are so delicate and precise that you can’t help but hope for the best for Anka and Justine. We see every nuance of their jittery excitement when they’re standing at the bus stop about to leave America; we feel every spark of their fear at their betrayal. There’s no pretension here and no exploitation. Just the characters, their feelings and our feelings.

“America” is a movie about yearning. Justine and Anka want more than anything to leave their world and live better lives, but their hearts are broken over and over by all the people they thought they could trust the most — their parents, the nice young man who took them in and even each other. It’s such an intimate, personal story, but in a way, it’s not unlike our country’s, still reeling from the events of the last few weeks. 

They wanted the world, and all they got was America. They’re not the only ones.