American Movie (1999) Movie Review

Mark Borchardt, the 30-year old Midwesterner / aspiring filmmaker at the heart of the documentary “American Movie,” is what they call dedicated. By all accounts (and this is substantiated after viewing his short film “Coven”, which he spent 3 years making) the man has little to no talent for the craft. Is it stupidity, insanity, or just balls that makes him so dedicated? Whatever the answer, Borchardt is the human tornado that drives “American Movie,” a frank and sometimes heartbreaking look at a man who insists on fulfilling his dreams come hell or high water.

Chris Smith’s camera follows Borchardt through 2 years and never blinks once as the Wisconsin native quests to make his first feature film, a movie to be called “Northwestern.” But there’s a problem: Borchardt doesn’t have enough money to make the film, and must finish his short film “Coven” first in hopes of earning enough profits to add to his “Northwestern” budget. What follows is two years in Borchardt’s life as he struggles through every adversity imaginable to finish “Coven.” Through it all, we wonder how long it will take for him to break, or for those around him to break him.

Tom Schimmels, a local actor and one of Borchardt’s regulars, says it best when he calls Borchardt “indomitable.” The man is that, through and through. Thirty years old, unmarried, and with 3 kids who he owes child support to, Borchardt is determine to go down in ruins instead of compromising. In an effort to finish “Coven,” Borchardt practically strongarms his ailing Uncle Bill into “investing” $3,000 into the production. Later, Borchardt emotionally blackmails his mother to trek into the wilderness in freezing weather to be one of his extras.

Chris Smith, the filmmaker behind “American Movie,” makes a very good choice early on not to insinuate himself into the documentary, although this becomes impossible after a while. Even though Smith, who also works the camera, sometimes breaks his silence by asking questions, the film is for the most part a straight look at Borchardt’s life and the lives (and trials and tribulations) of those around him. (Although it might have been better if Smith had edited out his own voice.)

The people around Borchardt, including his separated parents, doubting siblings, and best friends Ken Keen and Mike Schank, are just as colorful as Borchardt himself. And yes, these are real people, not actors. Borchardt’s parents don’t get along and live in separate homes; his brothers don’t understand why he doesn’t get a regular job like a normal person; and Mike Schank, an aspiring musician, seems eternally stoned. Besides that, Borchardt is living with a woman older than him, his wife is trying to get his kids, and the telephone company is ready to cancel his phone!

The proof that Smith is capturing the real-life Borchardt as he fast-talks his way through one unflattering season after another is when, during Thanksgiving, a plainly drunk Borchardt (he drinks like a fish) confronts Smith in the basement. At that moment, we realize that Borchardt knows his life is pathetic; that he knows intimately (although he will never say it out loud) that he’s chasing a hopeless dream. That one scene, with Borchardt clutching a turkey leg and staring into the camera with a knowing look, makes “American Movie” great.

Besides the obvious lessons would-be filmmakers can learn from Borchardt’s filmmaking mistakes (and oh God are there a lot!), the film is very accessible to John Q. At its heart, “American Movie” is more than a movie about a filmmaker trying to make it, it’s about a man trying, against all hope, to realize a dream that is so beyond his reach he has no hopes of ever obtaining it — ever. Even if Borchardt finally realizes the reality of making his movie “Northwestern,” there is absolutely no chance that he will ever be recognized as a good filmmaker. The truth is, Borchardt is not very good, and deep down, as he struggles to make “Coven” within the documentary, I believe he knows it.

But hope springs eternal, they say. Borchardt’s mind is full of hope, and no one is going to take that away from him. Not even the creditors gathering at his doorsteps…

Chris Smith (director) / Chris Smith (screenplay)
CAST: Mark Borchardt, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Alex Borchardt, Chris Borchardt

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