Is it a murder mystery to be solved, or a tortured projection of grief and guilt? Zachary Shedd’s Americana, in which the brother of a dead movie star copes with not one but two deaths that may be his fault, sets a quiet psychodrama against Bay Area backdrops that do more than add easy production value. Moody and elliptical but not gimmicky, the directing debut should earn respect on the fest circuit while adding to the cred of the “Flies Collective” production shingle, last responsible for Daniel Patrick Carbone’s haunting Hide Your Smiling Faces.
Having gone into self-imposed alcoholic exile after a drunk-driving incident that left a young boy dead, Avery Wells (David Call) is the target of an unusual intervention: Caleb (Jack Davenport), the producer of an unfinished film starring Avery’s sister Kate (Kelli Garner), physically hauls him back into San Francisco, letting him dry out in his home and hiring him to re-edit the movie.
What looks like an opportunity for redemption, or at least for reconnection with Kate, who was in the car with him when the child was killed, soon goes the other way: A stalker who has threatened him shoots Kate instead, shouting “it’s gonna do great now!” before turning the gun on himself.
The “it” is clearly the movie, which was troubled but will likely sell now that it’s Kate’s swan song. (That movie-within-a-movie is also called Americana, as was a 2008 short film by Shedd; the name goes unexplained.) But why would the killer care about its success? And will Avery wind up profiting from the movie even as he is held responsible for Kate’s death by her fans?
Shedd’s screenplay offers more than enough hints for viewers to feel confident we understand things before Avery does. But his direction, and Call’s pained performance, refuse to let us settle into armchair-detective mode. Americana dwells instead on Avery’s alcoholism, a topic to which nearly all conversations eventually turn. Scenes with Avery’s estranged wife and talk of the son he’s no longer allowed to see may feel like draggy diversions at one point, but direct us toward what may be the tale’s real subject: Avery’s compulsion to misdirect himself, evading the grief others have tried to face head-on.
Handsome photography by Justin Foster nails down the picture’s sense of place, with hilly vistas in the city and nearby Marin County emphasizing how alone Avery is with his pain, even when surrounded by people.
Venue: Seattle International Film Festival
Production company: Flies Collective
Cast: David Call, Kelli Garner, Frank Mosley, Jennifer Stuckert, Peter Coyote, Jack Davenport
Director-screenwriter: Zachary Shedd
Producers: Daniel Patrick Carbone, Matthew Petock, Lisa Kjerulff, Zachary Shedd
Executive producers: Hilary Bates, Ben Quinones, Matthew A. Stewart
Director of photography: Justin Foster
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Jami Villers
Editor: Saela Davis
Composer: Jeremy Turner
Casting director: Nina Henninger
Not rated, 80 minutes