American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In some families, certain topics are never discussed. In Andrew Wagner's family, every possible topic is discussed endlessly. It's remarkable that they have the courage (or recklessness) to speak so frankly to one another, and astonishing that they do it in front of a camera. Wagner's "The Talent Given Us" is a brave, funny, affecting film that follows his parents and two sisters as they drive from New York to Los Angeles, picking up a family friend in Iowa. The film rides along with them, stops for meals, eavesdrops in motels, sees the sights.
This is a "fiction film using the materials of documentary," Wagner told me when I met him at Sundance 2005. "My parents, sisters and friends play my parents, sisters and friends." They do a convincing job of it; the film feels like cinema verite, even though Andrew is behind the camera while they are allegedly driving to California to visit him. By pretending he's not there, they're acting. Many other details must be fictional. Consider the family friend nicknamed Bumby (Judy Dixon). In the film we learn she's a publicist who has just been fired from "Field of Dreams 2." The Internet Movie Database makes no mention of such a film. It must have been invented as an excuse to introduce another character halfway across the country.
Andrew's parents, Judy and Allen, have been married for 46 years and are still warmly considering divorce. Are we watching them, or "characters"? The biographical details match; he was a Wall Street stock specialist and tax consultant; she was a dancer, writer and technical editor. Both are semi-retired. They wonder if they have been failures as parents, but any family that can make this film has been a success. Maybe their carping at one another is a way of expressing affection.
The cross-country trip happens with all the premeditation of a John Cassavetes plot. Allen, Judy and their daughter Maggie go to the airport to pick up their daughter Emily, who has flown in from L.A. Both girls are actresses. Leaving the airport, Judy decides on impulse they must all drive as a family back to Los Angeles, to visit Andrew. Emily reasonably says this is insane, but later she's the one who insists on continuing the trip.