Film Review: An American Affair

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Filmmakers have certainly fabricated many strange hybrids through the years, but here's a new one: "An American Affair" is a coming-of-age tale and a JFK assassination conspiracy movie. The first half of that equation works nicely as Cameron Bright ably conveys the awkwardness, curiosity and recklessness of a young teen struggling to find his own person in the crosscurrents between peers and adults. And Gretchen Mol, lounging semi-nude as she smokes near an open Georgetown window, would spark any young man's curiosity and recklessness. But the assassination story line is absurd.

The film, made at least two years ago, is getting a limited release by Screen Media Films before a quick exit to DVD shelves. But video store clerks will encounter the same problem as the movie's marketers: What shelf will it go on? Next to "Summer of '42" or "The Parallax View"?

In the fall of 1963, Adam Stafford (Bright) is busy dealing with the standard issues of all coming-of-age tales -- crushes on girls, fights with schoolyard bullies -- at a D.C.-area Catholic school. Then, his world is turned upside down by the appearance of Catherine Caswell (Mol), a ravishing divorcee and libertine, right across the street.

Oddly, his parents (Perrey Reeves and Noah Wyle) seem to know about her. They are journalists, you see, and somehow everyone knows about Mrs. Caswell and JFK. Adam snoops around her building clumsily, but she is charmed by him and hires him to landscape her backyard.

She has another stalker in her ex-husband, Graham (Mark Pellegrino), an alcoholic CIA man. The marriage was irreparably damaged by the death of their son, but screenwriter Alex Metcalf feels no obligation to explain what happened.

Catherine is, ahem, a JFK confidante. One evening, the TV news shows the president delivering his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" address at the Berlin Wall. Later that night -- the same night, mind you -- a limo guarded by Secret Service agents turns up at Catherine's door, and JFK quickly slips inside. How did he do that? (Plus, that speech actually took place several months earlier. A little research won't kill anyone.)

Things get more foolish. A third stalker, a CIA master spy (James Rebhorn) -- in a trench coat no less -- turns up in Catherine's living room. He urges her to "talk" to the president about Cuba. Catherine, he tells her, is the agency's "only connection to the Oval Office." Really?

All these things happen within easy earshot of young Adam, or so it seems. Point of view is an iffy thing in this movie directed by Swedish-born, first-time feature filmmaker William Sten Olsson. That viewpoint should be Adam's, but at times the movie isn't clear how he can see and hear certain scenes.

The film hits its most absurd sequence following Kennedy's assassination, which Adam's father supposedly covered as a reporter. Adam has swiped Catherine's diary, and the CIA desperately wants it. So the master spy turns up at Adam's house, and his dad gives it to him.

How do you suppose that conversation went? "Excuse me, Mr. Stafford, your son has an important document linking the CIA with the recent assassination of our president. Would you mind if I tossed Adam's room?" And dad says, "Sure thing, I'll take you upstairs right now and will never write one word about this for my newspaper."

Too bad, though. All the scenes between the 13-year-old and the merry widow play marvelously. Especially fine is a scene where the two paint together -- she imagines herself something of an abstract painter -- that has playful charm. Accustomed to silly schoolgirls, Catherine is the first woman Adam has ever encountered. For her, Adam is a man who comes bearing only admiration rather than guilt, deceit and treachery.

On a limited budget, the film takes full advantage of locations in D.C. and Baltimore thanks to the astute lensing of David Insley and meticulous production design of Vincent Peranio.

Opens: Feb. 27 in New York, Washington D.C.; March 6 in Los Angeles (Screen Media Films)

Production: Astrakan Films
Cast: Gretchen Mol, Noah Wyle, James Rebhorn, Cameron Bright, Perrey Reeves, Mark Pellegrino
Director: William Sten Olsson
Screenwriter: Alex Metcalf
Producer: Kevin Leydon
Executive producer: John Daly
Director of photography: David Insley
Production designer: Vincent Peranio
Music: Dustin O'Halloran
Costume designer: Rolande Glicenstein
Editor: Scott Chestnut
Rated R, 93 minutes