American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Every once in a while you meet a kid like Jessica, who is tough and resilient and yet hangs onto her dreams.
She's a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn't a Santa, then maybe there isn't a God, and if there isn't a God, then there isn't a heaven, and, in that case, where did Jessica's mother go when she died? Jessica lives with her dad and brother on a small farm outside Three Oaks, Mich. Her dad grows apples and is struggling to make ends meet. He may have to sell the tractor. "Will we have enough to eat?" she asks him. "Sure," he says. "We'll have apple sauce, apple juice, stewed apples, apple pie, baked apples. . . . " One day while she's walking down the main street on her way home from school, Jessica witnesses a disturbing accident: One of Santa's reindeers falls down from a holiday decoration strung up across the street. It's Prancer, the third in line.
Nobody seems to care much about the injured decoration, which is cleared from the road. But not long after, walking home alone through the frosty woods on a cold night, Jessica comes across a reindeer with an injured leg. It stands unafraid in a moonlit clearing and seems to be asking for help. Not long after, her dad comes along in his pickup, and then they both see the deer in the road. Her dad sees that it has a bad leg and wants to shoot it, but then the reindeer disappears. And when it turns up again in the barn, Jessica hides it in an out-building and brings it Christmas cookies to eat. She wants to nurse Prancer back to health and return him to Santa.
OK, I know, this sounds like a cloying fantasy designed to paralyze anyone over the age of 9, but not the way it's told by director John Hancock and writer Greg Taylor. They give the film an unsentimental, almost realistic edge by making the father (Sam Elliott) into a tough, no-nonsense farmer who's having trouble raising his kids alone, and keeps laying down the law. And what really redeems the movie, taking it out of the category of kiddie picture and giving it a heart and gumption, is the performance by a young actress named Rebecca Harrell, as Jessica.