'My America': Film Review
Hal Hartley assembles monologues by 21 playwrights about the psychic state of the Union.
NEW YORK — An unsentimental look at a country whose melting-pot self-image doesn't always jibe with the sentiments of its heterogeneous citizens, Hal Hartley's My America presents a string of characters whose limited perspectives don't add up to a national portrait so much as they evoke astonishment at the multitudes coexisting here. Composed of 21 monologues, each penned by a different playwright, the work is held together by a minimalist production aesthetic that frees the performers without boring the viewer. Inhabiting a middle-zone — the featurettes Meanwhile and The Book of Life share this territory — between the filmmaker's crowd-pleasing early movies and the experimental work that barely tried to court an audience, the film should do well in one-night special arthouse engagements, especially those paired (as this one is) with Hartley Q&As. But it will reach most of the director's fans through the online service Fandor, where it began streaming, appropriately enough, on July 4.
Though set in environments ranging from a bodega to a prison library, each scene is filmed in the same mostly-bare, white-painted loft. Occasional props (a baby stroller, a piano) and sound cues suggest the varied settings, but only as much as is required to contextualize the speakers, whose attitudes range from introspective to chummy to urgently paranoid. We listen to anecdotes whose relevance to generally patriotic themes is obvious (a troubled father who is moved to tears when the national anthem plays before a baseball game) to ones whose political concerns are much more specific, as with a preacher who finds himself a hypocrite on the subject of gay marriage. Many of the stories are instantly transporting in their specificity, with a highlight being Dan Dietz's look at a soldier who cared for a sick girl in Afghanistan. But a couple lean on too-obvious ironies: Neil LaBute's entry, in which a pretty twentysomething blonde marvels at her ability to overcome the infinitesimal hardships life has handed her, constructs a straw woman so flimsy that one almost feels guilty for the real-world privileged solipsists that it mocks.
While most of the vignettes conjure a realistic scene, a couple lean more toward spoken-word performance art; another one or two play as allegory — like an auction in which hints about the auctioneer's personal disappointments serve as counterpoint to the American Dream he's hawking to an assortment of offscreen immigrants. Few episodes offer much in the way of flag-waving optimism, but even the darker scenes tend to be more fascinated by the challenges Americans face than despairing about them.
A couple of faces familiar from Hartley's films appear here (DJ Mendel and Thomas Jay Ryan are standouts in a uniformly strong cast), but, disappointingly, the director didn't write one of the soliloquies himself. Fans lamenting that, or worrying that his recent efforts in the small-scale arena will make it hard to find his work in arthouses, will be cheered by news about Hartley's next: Ned Rifle, the conclusion to the family saga begun in Henry Fool, promises to be his most broadly marketable outing in many years.
Production company: Possible Films
Director-Producer: Hal Hartley
Director of photography: Michael Koshkin
Editor: Kyle Gilman
Music: Hal Hartley
No rating, 77 minutes