In recent months, there have been serious calls for liberal city dwellers to reach beyond their “bubble” to better understand their rural counterparts. What’s rarely brought into the conversation: that large swaths of the so-called liberal elite have roots in rural places. These people, myself included, came of age among the cornfields and brick-red barns and eventually lit out for the city, and now occupy a kind of social purgatory in American culture.
The rurals deem us too uppity (educated) to relate to their small-town (or suburban) affairs, while the legacy city folks around us never quite understand the complicated joys of growing up working-class. No matter our color or ethnicity, so many of us are in that in-between. It’s a constant frustration — whether you’re in the red bubble or the blue bubble — that there are so few authentic representations of working-class life in movies and television, let alone portrayals of those in the purgatory.
Director Anne Hamilton, a Yale Law graduate who left behind a career as a litigator for filmmaking, might not seem the obvious choice to portray bona fide Middle Americans. But in her debut feature, American Fable — which tells the story of a young girl named Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) who dreams of leaving her parents’ farm and who then befriends the wealthy investor her father’s holding captive in a silo — Hamilton draws deeply from her own childhood.
“When I was 16 and 17, I worked in cornfields, and it was an expedient decision I made to leave,” Hamilton says. Her mother’s family has worked the land in Wisconsin for many generations, while her father was an Army brat. “When I left for Yale, I remember realizing pretty quickly how divided my psyche was. I had these very good roots that were valuable, but nobody cares about that when you’re in law school.” Conversely, nobody back home was very much impressed by Yale.
In the film, Gitty’s just beginning to understand her place in the world. She sees the fear in her parents’ faces when they talk about keeping the farm afloat. There’s a beautiful moment when she asks her dad, “Why don’t we go anywhere?” This becomes the central tension for the story: Her father can’t give her the world, but she’s already yearning for something different.
“To me, she’s asking, ‘Why are you the way you are?’ and it’s very painful,” Hamilton says. “It was one of the first scenes I wrote between them.”
When Gitty finds the man in the silo, it’s exactly what she needs: an entry point into life outside the farm. It’s ironic that even he, now, is trapped there. As Gitty keeps her father's kidnapping victim company, he teaches her about the broader world, playing chess with her and giving her puzzles to solve. Two bubbles collide out of necessity, and their inhabitants teach one another something about who and why they are.
“I do think there are bubbles in the real world,” Hamilton says. “We’re coming from very different cultures, and there’s no real overlap. It’s just tension. And I don’t think there’s a lot of stories about people in the Midwest that are being made and that get shown here.”
She means stories written and directed by people actually from these places. “I think it’s something festivals need to promote. There aren’t a lot of directors I can name — there’s Terrence Malick — but that perspective and that viewpoint is something we absolutely need to have.”
Hamilton’s careful not to simply glorify rural life. Like any story, there is light and dark, and she’s turned off by films that cast people on the farm as the pinnacle of virtue.
“For whatever reason, in the U.S., our shared icons of American history tend to be more pastoral, and I wanted to take that and turn it on its head and also show the darker side of it,” she says.
Hamilton, who was also a painter, studied the work of Edward Hopper, borrowing the color palette of his golden sunlight as well as the greens from his painting Nighthawks, which are like oxidized copper with a deeper note of emerald. Hopper’s a fitting inspiration, an artist whose works straddled modernity and the plurality of prairie life, bridging rural American nostalgia with the isolation of the newly developing cities. Hopper’s paintings inspired the Bates house in Hitchcock’s Psycho and directors like Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders and, yes, Malick. But rarely have female directors been given the opportunity to tell American stories inspired by someone like Hopper, to show us how girls see that same provincial world.
“There’s a point in the story when Gitty hears about a pilot who crashes their plane, and we’re seeing the story unfold from Gitty’s perspective,” Hamilton explains. “Of course the pilot is probably a man, but she pictures her as a woman, and that’s how we see it. She doesn’t even question it.”
Hamilton, however, is always questioning her own perspective, challenging her assumptions about people because of where they’re from, which is why every character in American Fable, whether rural or city slicker, possesses their own distinct humanity, neither better nor more virtuous than any other. She credits her lawyer’s mind with being able to argue both sides. As it turns out, the much-maligned legal profession, which operates on the assumption that a valid argument exists for every side, might be exactly what we need a little more of in the American cinema system.