American Primitive is the "why" that drove early activists like Harvey Milk and the Stonewall demonstrators to demand equality. It's a film about the struggle to redefine a peaceful, safe home against hatred, misunderstanding, and family law at the time when homosexuality was classified as mental illness. Set in 1973, this indie gem personalizes the mistrust, alienation, and prejudice that same-sex families still fight against today.
The film opens as 16 year-old Madeline Goodhart (Danielle Savre) and her slightly younger sister Daisy (Skye McCole Bartusiak) are moving in with their father Harry (Tate Donovan, Damages) on Cape Cod. Mom has died scant months earlier. During his widower's grief, dad's set up a peaceful new home at an old cottage along the dunes. From the girls' perspectives, it only adds to fun that dad's charming business partner, Mr. Gibbs (Adam Pascal, Rent), lives "out back" in their American primitive furniture studio.
As the Wyeth color seascape welcomes autumn ambers, the girls begin life at their new high school. All is smooth as sunshine. Campus life is full of scholarly endeavors intertwined with just enough teen love and tennis. Yep, even if it's the off-season, the Cape's the place for these two girls.
Donovan and Pascal tackle their roles with a tension that beguiles their calm locale. These same-sex caregivers are breaking new ground. Can they ever find peace and privacy living in the off-season Cape? They share a love eclipsed by an overriding fear that their secret will get out. Poor Mr. Gibbs, he is comfortable in his skin, but Harry, well Harry won't even admit he's homosexual. Donovan's Harry is a strong, sweet man who just wants to live the life he imagined when he was married. He's suffered long enough; it's time for his happier tomorrow.
Anne Ramsay as Mrs. Brown is the proper woman of the Cape, but she's lacking a man. Ramsay's the consummate seventies woman, trying to weigh feminism against loneliness in one of the film's standout performances. Ramsay's Mrs. Brown is the product of 1970's feminism and a nuclear-family-Donna Reed dream. I'd love to see another made film just about her.
Susan Anspach (Five Easy Pieces, Montenegro) excels with precise nuance as the wounded grandmother Martha. Watching her characterization, free of polish and heavy on the humanity, is a master course in the craft. Martha's a villainess who dares you not to see her cruel point of view. Anspach's performance takes us back about thirty-five years, all the way to last November. The depth she brings to this character beguiles her screen time. Watching her in this role is delightful as watching Bette Davis at her scene-stealing best.
Teen heartthrob Josh Peck is the story's voice of reason. He plays the scrappy native Cape Codder, Spoke White. Spoke's a Codder-cowboy with the attitude of "live and let live." He handles even some divergent dialogue about Viet Nam with a sincerity that made me care. This is a pivotal performance for Peck, and here he's tipped the scales of super stardom to his favor.
American Primitive is first time Director Gwen Wynne's own recounting of growing up on the Cape. Wynne's choices are risky and never dull. She uses a point/counterpoint form of split screen editing that reflects the many different perspectives on any one situation. Her choice that an African American actress seduces a 1973 gay man with a big kiss in a public restaurant plays to the notion that even in the Nixon era interracial was more acceptable than same-sex love.
This film took me back to TV movie that was produced at approximately the era American Primitive is set. It was Universal Television's That Certain Summer. In the 1972 film, a young Scott Jacoby comes to visit his divorced father (Hal Holbrook) in none other than -- San Francisco. He learns that his father's friend (a young Martin Sheen) is more than just a buddy. That Certain Summer was America's first real venture into a gay-themed film; the network held its breath and aired it. The critics loved it. I can't help but dream about how evolved American would be if we had grown with the intellect that produced that groundbreaking film. I still long for a socially-conscious, progressive TV shows reminiscent of All in the Family.
American Primitive may not change the world, but it announces to America that compassion for our fellow man beckons us to evolve further everyday. The producers of this film should be rewarded for addressing this hot-button issue. They have shown us how far we have come, but, like the characters in this coming-of-age film, American equality still has a long way to go.
American Primitive. Playing at a film festival near you.