An American Rhapsody

The first half of film editor-turned-director Eva Gardos's loosely autobiographical first feature is a remarkably sure-handed, almost unbearably suspenseful thriller chronicling one family's escape from Communist Hungary and their struggle to recover the infant daughter they left behind. It's also a heartbreaker anchored by Hungarian preschooler Kelly Banlaki,...read more

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Reviewed by Frank Lovece
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The first half of film editor-turned-director Eva Gardos's loosely autobiographical first feature is a remarkably sure-handed, almost unbearably suspenseful thriller chronicling one family's escape from Communist Hungary and their struggle to recover the infant daughter they left behind. It's also a heartbreaker anchored by Hungarian preschooler Kelly Banlaki, who gives one of the most naturalistic child performances ever captured on film. The self-contained second half, however, is a trite, blocky, Afterschool Special about a bratty 15-year-old who learns to love America because Hungary is, like, so old and gross. More than 20 years passed between the project's inception and its realization: As a production assistant on Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, Gardos was assigned to escort Colleen Camp, who played one of the Playboy Bunnies. Camp urged her to write a screenplay, and eventually served as the project's producer. The film opens with a black-and-white flashback: Wealthy Hungarian publisher Peter (Tony Goldwyn), his wife Margaret (Nastassja Kinski) and their older daughter escape to America, but Margaret's mother (Agi Banfalvy) doesn't trust the smuggler hired to get infant Suzanne out separately and asks a family friend to hide the baby in the countryside. Three years later, a happy Suzanne (Banlaki) is living with peasants Teri and Jeno (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi, Balazs Galko); her "American parents" are vague distant relatives. Meanwhile in L.A., Peter has provided his family with an atomic-age home in the suburbs, while Margaret writes letters to everyone from Stalin to Eleanor Roosevelt, trying to retrieve Suzanne. The family's eventual reunion becomes a heartwarming human-interest story for the local media, though young Suzanne thinks she's only on vacation; she doesn't realize until later that she won't be returning to the only parents she's ever known. On its own, the film's first half stands a poignant and powerful short about the ability of young children to adapt. We then flash-forward to 1965, and it's all downhill. Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson), bitter and resentful in a generalized teenage way, rebels by sneaking out at night to neck with clean-cut boys. A trip back to cramped, hardscrabble Hungary helps her realize how much she likes America after all. The end. In addition, the glammed-up Kinski looks the same age throughout and only has three expressions: angry, wistful, and someone's-killed-my-dog; she reacts to Suzanne's silly "I hate you" outburst with more welling tears than Meryl Streep did making Sophie's choice.

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