Thriftstorm #14: My American Cousin Goes There

Thriftstorm is Captain Video’s secondhand anthropology project. Follow @Thriftstorm on Twitter for the latest news on things people were just going to throw away.

Artifact: My American Cousin VHS tape

Description: 94 minutes, color, monophonic sound. Packaged in a plastic shell case with panels from the original cardboard sleeve slipped into the outside pockets.

Source: Thrift store, sometime in 2016

There are a lot of ways to assess a film – success in pursuit of its own goals, the greater cultural context, average shot length, the Bechdel Test – and today I’d like to propose another: The film you think about most. For me, that film is 1985’s My American Cousin1, and to explain why, this is the tape case:

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Your first thought may be, Wait, is this- and the answer is YES.

Margaret Langrick plays Sandy Wilcox, a 12-year-old girl2 living in rural British Columbia in 1959. We’re introduced to Sandy in voiceover – “Dear Diary: Nothing. Ever. Happens.” – while she writes down those words in enormous block letters, like a serial killer leaving a note for the cops.

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When her ridiculously handsome American cousin Butch Walker (John Wildman) drives up unannounced that night, it kicks off a story whose core question seems to be, “What is adulthood?” That’s kind of a pat question, albeit one suitable for film festival fare, but My American Cousin is weirder than that, and deeper.

Sandy is the loudest member of one of those large 1950s families your parents or grandparents had. Her mother is Kitty (Jane Mortifee), an amateur thespian, and her father John (Richard Donat) manages Paradise Ranch. (The other characters call him “the Major,” and in my head he immediately became Major Dad.)

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Sandy (center) with her mom (second from right), Major Dad (far right) and the rest of her family.

Sandy’s life has a tinge of the surreal – in an early scene, she starts a pointless fight with her mom while her younger sister carefully hangs cherries over her ears, ignoring the argument – but she can’t see it. Sandy spends much of the movie seething at how boring her life is. Butch’s arrival is a galvanizing moment every kid needs: Living proof that there’s a world outside your hometown.

Butch is an American in scare quotes. He’s supposed to be from California, but Wildman’s accent makes him sound like he’s from Minnesota, especially when Butch gets angry. He wears sleeveless white t-shirts, and he lights a cigarette by striking a match on the seat of his pants. He likes rock and roll. In one absolutely amazing scene, he casually remarks that Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, which is like Chekhov taking the gun off the wall and handing it to you for inspection.

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Sandy and Butch share a foreboding handshake.

The other characters are captivated by Butch, who interrupts everyone’s full-time schedule of being Canadian. Sandy and her friends can’t get over all the 1950s American cliches he embodies, and the adults don’t know what to do with him. His interactions with Major Dad are especially fun, as Richard Donat alternates between calm man-to-man speech and the I’m-not-yelling-I’m-just-talking-louder oratory of righteous paternalism. Sandy can’t decide whether she’s smitten with Butch, or if he’s just one more person to fight with.

Unlike Back to the Future, another 1985 look at the 1950s, Sandy’s world has little of the chromium shine later generations were taught to associate with the decade. In a physical environment that resembles nothing so much as a summer camp, the only visuals of note are gorgeous mountain backdrops. The color signal in the tape has decayed to bleary over-saturation, making it impossible to tell if certain backgrounds are matte paintings or not. If they’re all real, this is some of the most stunning geography I’ve ever seen, and the fact that it’s used as staging for teenagers to act out the dramas of the 1950s is funny on an almost existential level.

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Shortly after this shot, Butch asks them, “So: who do you think’s gonna get to the Moon first, us, or the Russians?” “What do you mean, ‘us’?”

In truth, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and a big part of that is that is uncertainty about how much of the comedy was intentional. There’s a scene where Butch and Sandy sneak out of the house for a drive, and have to quietly turn the car around and then roll it down the driveway without starting it. This plays out like a heist gone bad, with the two of them quiet-yelling at each other about who should push the car and who should steer. Bear in mind that the participants are a bronzed son of California – a youth so good looking his abs ripple through his shirt – and a mousey 12-year-old girl. Remember also that the vehicle they’re fighting with is a 1950s Cadillac that probably has the curb weight of a modern school bus. So of course Sandy loses, and has to push the car around while Butch spins the wheel.

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The car is a huge part of Butch’s mystique, along with smoking and rock and roll. In the movie’s best scene, which should be taught in film school alongside the “50 eggs” sequence from Cool Hand Luke and the alley fight from They Live, Sandy practices hitting on Butch by talking to a mirror. She uses her most adult voice to ask Butch if he’ll take her for a ride in the Cadillac, and her reflection turns her down.

They do go on drives, though, because putting characters in a moving vehicle is a great filmmaker trick to hide the fact that you need the whole scene for exposition. On one outing, Butch casually asks about Sandy’s brother, who is in a wheelchair. Sandy tells Butch he was born like that, and Butch flips out. “The birth?” he asks, suddenly realizing not every single person in the world gets a shot at being as beautiful as he is.

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This is an immensely uncool thing for Butch to do, but it’s also one of the most realistic. There are too many period movies where the good guys are attuned to the social values of the movie’s target audience. Butch Walker is a dipshit, and he’s a dipshit because his world is just as small as Sandy’s. His reasons for coming to Canada are not altruistic. He fled there to get away from the consequences of a thing he did. He still has no idea what he’s doing, or how much of a pain in the ass he’s being to the honest, hardworking, dull people of British Columbia.

There are a lot of “wait, what?” factors that make My American Cousin a weirdly intense watch. One is that it’s unclear what kind of cousins Sandy and Butch are. (Marriage between first cousins is legal in every part of Canada, whereas in the U.S. it’s a patchwork of judginess.) Another is that it’s unclear how old Butch is. A charitable reading is that he’s 16. That makes him simultaneously too old to be hitting on Sandy’s tween friends (which he does), but also too young for the beer Major Dad offers him as a reward for going one whole scene without fucking something up.

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The default expression of 20th century fatherhood.

Something I didn’t realize when I first watched the movie, but which makes perfect sense now that I know it, is that writer/director Sandy Wilson based a lot of the story on her own girlhood. In this 1986 Washington Post article, which is absolutely worth reading in full, Wilson talks about reliving the struggle of crafting memories into a film. It cost her a relationship with the film’s art director, which she sums up with: “We worked on the film together. We should not have worked on the film together. Well, there were a million other things as well…”

Margaret Langrick, who plays Sandy Wilcox, was Wilson’s real-life neighbor, and this was her first screen role. (Langrick acted for a decade after this; her website currently lists her as “a writer, editor, public speaker and media entrepreneur.”) At the time the movie came out, Langrick was 14, and John Wildman was 25. This makes the fact that they had to kiss on screen the only part of My American Cousin that I found genuinely uncomfortable, rather than just hilariously out of step with early 21st century America.

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The icy grip of California tightens around Butch.

At the end of the movie, Butch’s parents come to collect him. They, too, are Americans in scare quotes. Butch’s dad, Al Walker (Terrence Moore), is a caricature of a Texas oil man; his mom, Dolly Walker (Babs Chula), sports an uncertain accent that suggests, among other things, New York. One does not envy Butch going back to California to live out the rest of his teens with these people. Will he miss British Columbia? Will British Columbia miss him?

My American Cousin is a reconstructed memory. I can’t know how close Sandy Wilson got to recreating herself in Sandy Wilcox, or how close she wanted to get. (One of Wilson’s comments in the Washington Post piece is that, during production, “I’d be watching [Margaret Langrick] for her adolescent business and she’d be watching me for Sandy business. We’d sort of turn into each other a little bit, which was kind of spooky.”) You know, just resurrecting yourself in the form of your real-life kid neighbor so she can help you recreate the summer you were 12 and had a crush on your cousin.

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Actual dialogue: “Wuuut a view!

As with the comedy, it’s unclear to me how much of the transgressive thrill of cousin romance is intentional. But I don’t think that open question would be as poignant if both characters were from the same country. As her cousin, Butch might be too close to Sandy for romance, but as an American, he’s too far away. In the end, it’s ambiguous as to how fully they understand that.

I can’t make the case that My American Cousin is a great film. It’s a biographical drama with uneven acting and a body count of zero. Its best visual effects are natural scenery and the ability to mount a camera on a moving car. And, for all its weirdness, it does drag in places. But there was a vision here, and I believe that vision was fulfilled.

I admire this movie, and I admire the people who made it. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It’s possible that I like it for the wrong reasons, and that the humor I see in it is patronizing. But, if there’s weirdness hiding behind the film’s premise, then there’s kindness behind the weirdness. Sandy and Butch and Major Dad and the various people who populate Sandy’s world all feel real, even when they’re never fleshed out. I wish every thrift store movie had a production this interesting behind it.

Next time: Comic books and educational television, together at last.