The images of a rural field that open "American Fable" could, for a brief instant, be something out of Andrew Wyeth, woozy with wonder. Soon, though, it's clear that a nightmarish dread pulses beneath the dreamlike beauty.
For her first feature, set during the Midwestern farm crisis of the 1980s, director Anne Hamilton establishes a realistic sense of place and a horror-tinged atmosphere with impressive skill. Her artistry announces a cinematic talent. It also compounds the disappointment when her screenplay doesn't quite hold together.
The story of 11-year-old Gitty (superbly played by Peyton Kennedy) and her struggling family grabs hold with its eerie palette and emotional tension. With no friends her age, Gitty becomes fascinated after she discovers a big-city businessman, Jonathan (Richard Schiff), imprisoned in a silo. His worldliness suggests possibilities beyond the circumscribed life of her hardworking parents (Kip Pardue and Marci Miller) and brutal brother (Gavin MacIntosh). While trying to sort out their role in Jonathan's predicament, she becomes his protector, if not quite his rescuer.
On top of this surreal turn of events, two mysterious figures appear. One, on horseback, is a symbolic gesture that adds nothing to the tale. The other, the cosmopolitan Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), has struck an unholy alliance with Gitty's dad — one of several key plot points that crumble under scrutiny. Whatever license the word "fable" grants Hamilton, it doesn't redeem the narrative muddle.
But there's an undeniable gutsiness to her filmmaking. The American dreamscape she creates is memorably unsettling.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Santa Monica