An American Rhapsody Movie Review

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An American Rhapsody offers us an example of teen acting gone marvelously right. As a 15-year-old who wants to rediscover her Hungarian roots, Scarlett Johansson portrays the thrill and frustration of being a teenager so perfectly that I don't ever want her to grow up. And her voice, with its cracked rage, only makes her desire to get control in her life sound more convincing.

When Johansson (Ghost World) is on screen, An American Rhapsody has a riveting passion and dramatic urgency that is found nowhere else in the movie, which is based on director/screenwriter Éva Gárdos's life. Johansson's character, Suzanne, is left behind in Hungary as an infant when her family stealthily moves to America circa 1950. Six years later, the young Suzanne is finally brought to America, where she joins her parents, Margit and Peter (Nastassja Kinski and Tony Goldwyn) and her older sister (Mae Whitman). However, in the process, Suzanne is torn away from the parents (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi and Balázs Galkó) of a family friend who nurtured and protected her from government suspicion.

Suzanne has trouble fitting in with a world of hula-hoops and hamburgers, running away several times. At 15, she is still fleeing, only this time to smoke cigarettes, make out, and dabble in other forms of teenage rebellion. This doesn't sit well with Margit, who soon results to locking Suzanne in her bedroom. When Suzanne finds a shotgun in her closet and starts blasting away at her locked bedroom door, she decides that a trip to Communist Hungary will set things straight.

Until Johansson appears, the proceedings dawdle. Gárdos, a longtime film editor, spends too much time setting up the movie's powerful final stretch. A fascinating array of characters gets left in limbo, and a load of potential powerhouse dramatic moments get ignored. Margit, who has come from an obviously wealthy upbringing, finds herself working as a waitress and writing letters to anyone who could bring Suzanne to America. Peter, who dreams of running a publishing house in America, ends up building airplanes. Gárdos doesn't show how the couple reacted to such a sudden social shift without their little girl. There had to be nights of terse bedroom conversations, quiet sobbing and reassurances.

And what about Margit's mother (Ágnes Bánfalvy), who spends time in prison for protecting her family, including Suzanne? Late in the movie, she tells Suzanne she endured the time behind bars by thinking of fairy tales to tell her grandchildren. With a more experienced director (this is Gardos' feature film directing debut), the possibilities for showing the grandmother's distraction could have been fascinating.

The movie works best when Johansson is onscreen. Scenes involving the six-year-old Suzanne (Kelly Endresz-Banlaki) are also wonderful. There's not an ounce of stage mother gusto in her performance. And Gardos does craft some nice moments in her film where the pursuit of the American dream tears at your roots. A scene when Endresz-Banlaki calls Kinski "lady" as she's tucked in is hard to forget.

Most of the movie, unfortunately, lacks emotional power. America is a nation of immigrants -- we all know stories of how our families made sacrifices to get here. In a movie about immigrants' pluck and grit, a director can't just focus on a settling story. We've heard that before. He or she must take pains to hit on a human level. Gárdos sporadically does that in An American Rhapsody, but fortunately there's enough evidence here to support she will be more accurate in the future.

Rhapsody in red.

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An American Rhapsody Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, 2001

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