It?s the sort of thing that should have been a happy ending instead of the jumping off point for an intimate, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant family drama. But that?s the thing about real life and why it is, intrinsically, more interesting than fiction. Such is the stuff of AN AMERICAN RHAPSODY, which is based on the real-life experiences of its first time writer/director Eva Gardos.
The story begins in 1960, when Gardos? parents, played by Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn, are fleeing their native Hungary with her older sister. The guide who will sneak them from Budapest across the border into Austria refuses to travel with a baby. The child, named Suzanne, is left behind with her grandmother to be smuggled out the next day by someone else. Unfortunately, events don?t go as planned and the infant is, instead, sent into hiding in the countryside where she will remain for six years, receiving extravagant presents from her real parents while bonding with the couple who have taken her in.
When Suzanne is finally re-united with her parents, the happy ending everyone expected quickly falls to pieces. Her parents and sister are strangers to her, living in the strange landscape of California suburbia. She refuses to call her mother Mom; she wails that she wants to go home. Things improve only slightly with time, and by the time she has become a teenager, Suzanne is in full rebellion, pushing away the people who love her most by pushing the boundaries of their patience. After an incident with a rifle, and at his wits? end, Suzanne?s father agrees to live up to a promise that he made many years before, that is she still wanted to go back to Hungary when she grew up, he would send her. Suzanne?s journey to her old home reveals many truths about her place in the world and the person she wants to be.
Gardos, who has made her living until now as a respected film editor, knows how to tell the story. There is a refreshing lack of melodrama in this wrenching tale. She is also, unsurprisingly, accomplished in the effective us of cinematic idioms, for example, shooting the early scenes of the escape from Hungary in a lustrous black and white and then having the screen bloom into color slowly as the family settles into freedom in the West.
The performances have a touching authenticity. Kinksi, in particular, brings a haunting, ethereal sadness to her role as a mother who does not know where to turn when events overwhelm her, but never gives up either trying to bring her daughter to America or to try to save her from herself once she gets there. Scarlett Johansson, (GHOST WORLD), has a teenager?s angst but that same quality of sadness as she aches for the hole in her heart that was torn when she left Hungary to be filled by any emotion at all, even anger.
AN AMERICAN RHAPSODY has made more than one person puddle up at press screenings. I mention that because the crusty bunch to be found at these things rarely make a display of how films affect them. So, don?t be embarrassed if the same thing happens to you with the final unforgettable image of this film.