DISCLAIMER: This review contains mild spoilers for Marcella Cytrynowicz’s American Cherry. Proceed at your peril.
Ah, teen romance. It usually burns brightly, fiercely and briefly — even more so when you’re in the throes of hormone-fueled angst. Sometimes, it’s chaotic external circumstances that bring two young people together. This proves to be the case for Finn Elliott and Eliza Stein in American Cherry, an indie flick written and directed by Marcella Cytrynowicz (it’s also the filmmaker’s directorial debut).
American Cherry tells the tale of Finn (Hart Denton), a troubled boy who meets and falls for Eliza (Sarah May Sommers), a girl from his school trying to find calm amid familial turbulence. The pair become instantly close, discovering a haven in one another. That is until Finn’s love morphs into a dangerous obsession as he attempts to save Eliza from her family. He pieces together a video diary for Eliza that chronicles a devastating love story, untreated mental illness and the trauma we inflict on each other.
At face value, this film reads like a stereotypical troubled teen romance. Narratively, it struggles to steady itself in the beginning. You wade through clunky dialogue and abrupt, jarring editing as the story unfolds. That’s not to say those elements don’t still exist by the movie’s end, but they become less noticeable as the plot moves along.
American Cherry boasts gorgeous visuals and seamless cinematography from Gus Bendinelli, who shot on 35mm film. Bendinelli’s fluid camerawork and unique shots are nothing short of swoon-worthy, with idyllic, cinematic frames that could easily be hung on someone’s wall. It captures the beauty outside the storm. The ethereal nature of life that lives on the outskirts of the tumultuous Eliza and Finn. Finn even remarks on how beautiful life is despite his traumatic upbringing.
Additionally, the film highlights the pervasiveness of mental health issues in impoverished areas due to limited resources. Eliza and Finn’s small town is anything but prosperous. Everyone struggles financially to keep their heads above water. Finn and Elliott’s parents are abusive to their kids, and they refuse treatment. Notably, Eliza’s mother, played by Leonor Varela, grapples with alcohol addiction and manic depression.
For those of us with abusive parents, especially verbally, emotionally and mentally, American Cherry‘s depiction might hit close to home. It certainly strikes a chord, and it’s understandable why Eliza and Finn are drawn to each other.
Hart Denton undoubtedly resembles Dave Franco in appearance, but he presents himself here as River Phoenix come back to life. Denton’s performance as Finn is altogether mercurial, visceral and tenderhearted. He’s a quiet storm of swirling volatility. Finn struggles with his anger, which Denton deftly conveys. He injects what could be a two-note character with nuance, showcasing his versatility. While you disagree with Finn’s ultimately life-altering choices, you empathize with this Vonnegut-quoting, world-weary, perpetually angry teenager.
Sarah May Sommers brings a similar energy to Eliza. She comes off as more levelheaded than Finn, but her white-hot rage rears its head in unexpected moments. Sommers navigates the waters of adolescent ire and unprocessed trauma like a pro.
American Cherry steers clear of expositional dumps. Instead, the film believes in showing over telling, utilizing the visuals to bring the story to life. It doesn’t underestimate the audience’s intelligence, which is refreshing. It refrains from holding our hands. When tragedy strikes, we don’t need to see anything graphic. We’re smart enough to put two and two together, and American Cherry knows this.
Cytrynowicz’s direction is solid, especially as a first-timer. It gels well with the fluidity of Bendinelli’s camerawork. Her script isn’t quite as solid; there are a few rough patches. Namely, the aforementioned clunky dialogue. It doesn’t flow as naturally as I’d hoped, but naturalness does spring from the violence and unpredictability of the characters. Mental illness is messy, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that.
The complexities of the characters’ trauma and explosive behavior juxtaposed with the serene background showcases the duality of humankind. We contain multitudes.
American Cherry is categorized as a “psychological-thriller romance,” although I’m not certain about the “thriller” part. Sure, there are psychological elements, and it’s a romance, but there’s no real sense of suspense until the last 10 minutes of the film. Instead, it plays more like an indie drama.
The tragedy that eventually strikes in the movie’s final moments isn’t unexpected; nonetheless, it’s heartbreaking. After a pivotal reveal, American Cherry sort of … ends. Usually, I’d be irritated by this, but I feel a film of this nature could only conclude in this manner. It represents the abruptness of life. Things begin and end without a preamble or proper closure. Life isn’t neat.
Overall, American Cherry isn’t without its flaws, but the performances and visuals make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Hart Denton and Sarah May Sommers are two performers that deserve exciting careers. They give multilayered performances, breathing life into two complex, heart-wrenching characters. Marcella Cytrynowicz has the potential to excel as a filmmaker who takes big, innovative swings.
This film is a tragic tale of what happens when we don’t take care of ourselves. Mental health is essential.
American Cherry is available for purchase on Prime Video, Google Play, Vudu and Apple TV.
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