American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Somewhere in the back of nowhere, in an adobe house with no lights or running water, a family lives in what could be called freedom or could be called poverty. We're not sure if they got there because they were 1960s hippies making a lifestyle experiment or were simply deposited there by indifference to conventional life. They grow vegetables and plunder the city dump and get $320 a month in veterans' benefits, but they are not in need and are apparently content with their lot.
Now there is a problem. "That was the summer of my father's depression" the narrator tells us. She is Bo Groden, played in the movie by Valentina de Angelis at about age 12, and heard on the sound track as an adult (Amy Brenneman). "I'm a damn crying machine," says her dad, Charley (Sam Elliott). He sits at the kitchen table, staring at nothing, and his wife and daughter have learned to live their lives around him.
His wife is Arlene, played by Joan Allen in a performance of astonishing complexity. Here is a woman whose life includes acceptance of what she cannot change, sufficiency within her own skin and such simple pleasures as gardening in the nude. She is a good wife and a good mother, but not obviously; it takes us the whole movie to fully appreciate how profoundly she observes her husband and daughter, and provides what they need in ways that are below their radar.
Charley has a friend named George (J.K. Simmons), who sort of idolizes him. Sometimes they fish, sometimes they talk. Arlene wants George to impersonate Charley, visit a psychiatrist and get some antidepressants. George would rather fish. One day a stranger arrives at their home, which is far from any road. He carries a briefcase, says he is from the IRS and is there to audit them, since the Groden family has reported an annual income of less than $5,000 for several years.