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‘American Pastoral’ breaks from all-American movie traditions

“American Pastoral” – Newark Maid Gloves, a thriving manufacturer owned by the Levov family, is located in an industrial neighborhood of the New Jersey city with the same name. Life and business have operated swimmingly for decades, but riots during the late 1960s created a confrontational atmosphere for the factory. Generally speaking, protestors concentrated their efforts in large U.S. cities, but one incident - far from the factory - in the small town of Old Rimrock, NJ rocked the unsuspecting farming community in Ewan McGregor’s feature film directorial debut, “American Pastoral”.

McGregor plays Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, and his character – for years - enjoyed a wonderful existence with his beautiful wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning). They created an appealing, Rockwellesque life in Old Rimrock for themselves to raise Merry, while Swede commuted to Newark to run the family business with his dad (Peter Riegert), until the aforementioned incident changed their lives.

Although this particular event is the story’s fulcrum, McGregor and screenwriter John Romano broadly explore the fragile nature of family through an intimate study of the Levovs. First, the picture offers several carefully crafted scenes to establish Swede and Dawn’s virtue. The couple may carry surficial, all-American good looks, but their internal intentions are just as honest and true. For example, while Merry (at an elementary school age) struggles with a stutter and has problems making friends, Swede and Dawn show her much love and support and wish the very best for her.

They frequently discuss and act upon various ways to lift their daughter up at their homestead, complete with docile cows, large swathes of lush green grass and outdoor barbeques. Many of these scenes - with Ocean James playing an eight-year-old Merry - tug on our heartstrings, as we want to step into the screen and provide an encouraging word as well. Despite Swede and Dawn’s efforts to raise a warm human being, their seemingly never-ending attempts may or may not reach this separate soul.

When the soul in question allegedly brings a crisis to their family, their solid foundation begins to crack rather than hold.

In one key way, “American Pastoral” differs from other family dramas. When internal family dynamics explode in films, children usually take the protagonist roles, and out of touch parents play the hurdles and roadblocks to the kids’ salvation. Here, McGregor’s movie presents Swede and Dawn in a sympathetic light. They are the ones who are wronged. They are the victims. They are the ones who try to pick up the pieces and assemble a jumbled puzzle that carries no easy paths to solve. The role reversal does not celebrate youthful exuberance and idealism. Instead, it values stability and responsibility, and it offers the viewer a different perspective not too often seen in cinema.

McGregor and Connelly are utterly believable as a wounded couple searching for answers, and Connelly is especially effective and perfectly cast. As an aging beauty queen staring into a limited tomorrow, she gives one of the strongest supporting performances of the year and turns frighteningly icy during one brutally frank exchange. Not to be forgotten, McGregor competently carries the dual mantles of a concerned dad and director alike.

Keenly aware of his first effort from behind the camera, I noticed beautifully-filmed touches throughout the movie, and interestingly, many occurred during important walks by leads. Some notable examples are: Swede and Dawn’s determined stroll to the Newark Maid Gloves factory on a bright sunny day, a dark and cautious approach in one of the most deplorable sections in Newark and an affecting march during the film’s third act.

“American Pastoral” is not a feel-good film. The picture takes a loving family and applies damage to it. At times, the theatrical experience felt like I placed the underside of my forearm - facing upward - on my armrest, as the film burned it with an open cigarette. Emotions do run high, and other than 2015’s “Room”, “American Pastoral” demonstrates the unrequited parental love for a child more than any other of film - that I have seen - in years.

That specific love brightly burns, even when it hurts.

(3.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Lionsgate

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