American Primitive -- Film Review

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SEATTLE -- Director Gwen Wynne brings a novel perspective to her feature film debut. After her mother died in the 1970s, Wynne grew up with her father and his gay lover at a time when such households were a rarity. She has crafted a fictional story inspired by her own experience in "American Primitive," which has begun playing at a few film festivals around the country. The film is heartfelt, but it's too clunky to be gripping. It has little box office potential beyond the festival circuit.

The story begins in 1973, when Madeline (Danielle Savre) and her younger sister Daisy (Skye McCole Bartusiak) move in with their father (Tate Donovan) on Cape Cod. There they also meet his business partner (Adam Pascal), but it takes a while before they realize the nature of the men's relationship. The film bears some resemblance to a landmark TV movie from the 70s, "That Certain Summer," in which a teenage boy learns his father is gay. Reworking the premise from a female point of view is arresting, but this picture is far less artful than its predecessor.

The dialogue is frequently heavy-handed, and a number of the characterizations are irritatingly one-dimensional. Susan Anspach and James B. Sikking play the girls' clueless grandparents, who come off as stereotypical bluenoses. Similarly, the crass kids at school have few complexities.

On the plus side, the byplay between the two sisters is fresh and funny. Bartusiak is particularly engaging as the wackier sister. Savre is likable enough, but she's defeated by the character's earnestness.

The best acting comes from Josh Peck as Madeline's gawky admirer. While the character he plays -- a salt-of-the-earth clam digger -- is fairly stock, Peck brings a lot of energy and heart to his portrayal. His monologue about a brother who died in Vietnam is the emotional high point of the movie.

Inviting photography of Cape Cod helps to make the film palatable; the music selections also add vibrancy. Gay audiences will be happy to see that everything is wrapped up neatly, though perhaps a little too neatly.

"That Certain Summer" was more honest in acknowledging the real difficulties for teenagers struggling to accept a gay parent. This film may be more politically correct, but it's dramatically inert.

Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
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