Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Hill Harper, Natasha Lyonne, Elodie Bouchez, Leo Burmester, Frankie Faison, Karen Black, and Michael Rapaport
Director: Paul Black
Writing Credits: Paul Black
Distributor: CWL/Creation Films (US 2004)
Rated: Not Yet Rated

Paul Black's debut feature AMERICA BROWN takes its title from its lead character, a charming but naive high school football player with an exceedingly unfortunate metaphor for a name. It's not hard to guess, however, that the title may also be a critical commentary on the myths of America, highlighting the disconnect between the country's idealistic self-image and its more bitter reality -- the amber waves of grain turning a darker shade of brown. I make this rather tenuous connection because, although the film takes place mostly in New York City, its emotional center is in the American heartland. Texas, to be specific, where men are manly and high school football falls somewhere between a cottage industry and a religion. Football played at this level is serious business, and there are dangers in such severity. Anytime we reach for glory -- even if it is just the glory of local football legends -- the attempt can burn our hands the way direct sunlight can scald retinas. The myths of America are splattered with tales of glory gone awry.

Sometimes, the pressure is just too much to bear. And so America Brown, or Ricky for short (Ryan Kwanten), runs away from the pressures of football, family, and fortune to the Big Apple, searching for a little perspective and for his long-lost hero, John Cross (Hill Harper), the football star from a decade earlier who disappeared from Texas without a trace. Cross has become a Catholic priest in the interim, but is still scarred by the Machiavellian tactics of his former (and Ricky's current) coach, Bo Williams (Leo Burmester). While the two men joined by football's oppressiveness get to know one another, Ricky also meets a diner waitress, Vera (Natasha Lyonne) and John continues a clandestine affair with Rosie (Elodie Bouchez). Bo, however, will not give up on his star quarterback easily, and a showdown is in the works over Ricky's body, soul, and talent.

AMERICA BROWN is the story of a tormented kid verging on manhood, but still caged by the limitations of youth -- the inability to make choices for oneself, especially in the face of tradition and family history. America's recently deceased brother, Daniel (Michael Rappaport), was also a football star, and Ricky's desire to follow in his footsteps is a tormented elegy to Daniel's memory. For the Brown family, led my mother Marianne (Karen Black), there is a resignation, a weary acceptance of the inevitability of Ricky playing the very sport that he hates. To him, and indeed all of them, there are no options, no exits, no acceptable diversions from the path. The trip to New York is a desperate attempt on Ricky's part to escape, but also to grow up fast.

Black's script is clunky at conveying these esoteric ideas, especially in the beginning. But visually, AMERICA BROWN exhibits quiet gracefulness. There is a classical elegance in the camera shots, and the production team dazzles constantly with the muted, stark color palette. Archetypal images are Black's fascination: the countrified cowboy striding through urban Brooklyn, the multiple uses of the New York skyline, a football being passed from brother to brother in glossy dream sequences. AMERICA BROWN is ponderously paced, and takes awhile to get amped up...but when it finally does begin to congeal in the final hour, it is as affecting and magnificent as any film released this year.

Australian newcomer Kwanten, with his natural good looks and genial smile, exudes both confidence and vulnerability in his first feature lead. Surrounded by a half-dozen of the world's most talented character actors, Kwanten more than keeps up with his more experienced costars. Lyonne, for instance, is usually cast in comedic roles; here, however, she blossoms in playing the feisty Vera, whose heart seems to break every so slowly in the brief pauses between her words. Harper does a career-best performance as the moody, introspective priest who must be brought out of his own past. Elodie Bouchez, the stunning French actress who won over audiences around the world in The Dreamlife of Angels, makes the most of her tiny part, brightening the energy of every scene she is in.

And then there's Leo Burmester, one of the most underrated actors Hollywood has ever seen. As the bigoted and brutal Coach Williams, Burmester grabs Black's screenplay like it was a deli sandwich, devouring his scenes with both hands. It's a shame, in fact, that many of his scenes feature the weak performance of Karen Black, whose shaky theatrics throw AMERICA BROWN completely off-kilter. (Tone it down, sister.) Even so, Black is not the biggest problem among the ensemble -- that honor would fall to Rappaport, whose Nu Yawk twang never goes away, even when playing a lifelong rural Texan. His one-note (and one-accent) performance move beyond distracting into embarrassing.

But for the most part, AMERICA BROWN hums along nicely. Coming-of-age stories rarely deviate from the basics, but Black finds real originality and freshness in his fish-out-of-water premise. Against the backdrop of New York, the rites of passage into adulthood have rarely been so textured, with conflicting concerns of love and honor, friendship and heartbreak, innocence and ambition. It's a melting pot not unlike the country it subtextually explores, and it shows the best (and the worst) attributes of the singularly peculiar mythology we call the American Dream.

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews & the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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