Mucking with Movies: 'American Fiction' | – The Aspen Times

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“American Fiction” opens with the main character Monk (Jeffery Wright) making a college student cry, and I for one am always in support of that. Director Cord Jefferson spends the next hour and a half wringing out every bit of white crocodile tears he possibly can, simultaneously mocking my demographic while enthralling us in a story we could not possibly begin to unravel. Was it dense and had me thinking about it for days and days and days? Sure.
Was it a good movie? Not entirely sure.
The first act was spent dispensing a brother-sister narrative that left me tearing up thinking about mine on the other side of the country. They discussed the rest of the family, their emotionally distant father, their aging and sliding-into-dementia mother, and the black sheep brother with the thin mask of cordiality that families wear when discussing such things. Brother-sister stories are oddly rare in film; of all the family tropes, for a strange reason, this pairing is so often left out. As I sit here now, I can’t seem to conjure a single one to mind. I did a quick internet search just to see if I was missing any glaringly obvious ones and – I kid you not – in the ranking of “Best of” for the strain was “Cheaper By The Dozen,” “Star Wars,” “Escape to Witch Mountain,” and “Spy Kids.” How bizarre – you would think these relationships would be ripe for dissection.
Jefferson does so exquisitely here, depicting one that is grown, one where they are grappling with their shared pain, their shared trauma. The exchanges between Monk and Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) are so dense that it authenticates everything that follows. Taking up most of the first act, this was by far my favorite part of the film.
Before I continue further, I also need to comment on the rest of the family’s performances, as they were just as palpable. First, Leslie Uggams’ performance as the aforementioned dementia-stricken mother Agnes. I had a grandfather who lived with my family for the last couple of years when he was battling the same disease. I can recognize those vacant eyes. Uggams should get all the awards for all the things for this turn.
And then finally perhaps the best of all, Sterling K. Brown as the drug-addled, misunderstood gay brother Cliff. Estranged from the family since his youth, he impressively displayed the shield people in the closet must protect themselves with against the loved ones who don’t love them for who they are. It is dropped when we see that he is just one of the people who needed and needs a little more love. In those moments, we get a quick peek into the totality of Cliff, but then it is expertly raised again once that love evaporates. In a film full of excellent performances, Brown still managed to stand above.
Everything else though, I’m a bit ambivalent on. The direction didn’t have anything particularly interesting going on. Mainly, it relied on soft focus wides, which is a straightforward way to tell your story in a film that was anything but. As thick as the plot was, the direction should have been a skeleton key to get us through the door. Certainly, a solid effort was made to ensure that every thread that was unspooled in the script was an authentic one. It never felt like we were being taken down a rabbit hole. Everything looped back in for one reason or another, layering on texture over texture until you could almost feel the film bristling your fingers.
I oscillate between believing that the film was unforgivingly cynical or that it was not cynical enough. I would have enjoyed to see it lean in, making everybody and everything irredeemable. But if you’re going to take the middle path as it did, we need moments for warming optimism to shine through. An opportunity to see there is meaning behind the fury. It was an awkward landing in the middle.
It is deeply ironic for this film to be getting Oscar nominations. I think that’s what feeds my belief it was not cynical enough is it should have terrified the academy. But it is certainly extraordinary, if still a little short of exceptional.
Hard to forgive the pretty basic heavy-handed premise; at times, the script would spell it out for us. Taking a sledgehammer to every theme it pursued, some nuance would have made it undeniable as one of the best cinematic takes on race ever made.
Critic Score: 7.4/10
Jack Simon is a mogul coach and writer/director who enjoys eating food he can’t afford, traveling to places out of his budget, and creating art about skiing, eating, and traveling while broke. Check out his website to see his Jack’s Jitney travelogue series. You can email him at for inquiries of any type.

Chefs Hakan and Anne Thörnström make their triumphant return to the Roaring Fork Valley on Thursday, February 22nd for the second installment of the “Chefs and Somms” series at The Little Nell. Tucked inside The Gallery, a cozy spot adjacent to Element 47, these dinners are already getting the chefs pumped up.

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