By Bret Polish, 15, Cleveland HS
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American Beauty, writer Alan Ball’s first screen-writing effort, interconnects the lives of several different characters in a small suburban town, which serves as a microcosm for middle-class America. The crux of the film focuses on the disintegration of the Burnham family. Stuck in a humdrum existence and an unfulfilling job, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) begins to re-examine his life when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend (Mena Suvari), thus destroying his family in the process. It doesn’t help that his realtor wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) starts having an affair with one of her real-estate competitors (Peter Gallagher) and that Lester’s daughter Jane (Thora Birch) doesn’t pay much attention to either of her parents. Soon Jane gets romantically involved with her new next-door neighbor Ricky (Wes Bentley), a weird kid who likes to videotape everything.

I particularly admired the script for the way it fleshed out the characters and used their little quirks to create hilariously realistic moments of black comedy. While scenes like Lester masturbating in the shower could have been overdone and milked for laughs by a lesser writer, Ball achieves the necessary effect—a shockingly realistic funny moment—and moves right along.

Tragedy and comedy mixed to get audience reactions. The film builds comedy and tragedy at all the right moments without letting the two overlap. This is used best in the scene where Carolyn fails miserably at trying to coax herself out of a tantrum. After not selling a house, she starts crying because she has not accomplished what she has set out to do. Being that she’s the type of person who feels she must always remain in complete control, she slaps herself several times, yelling "Stop it!"

Ball’s script wisely finds comedy in the tragedy and tragedy in the comedy without wise-ass condescension. Some characters are involved in things that people might consider morally offensive, like affairs and pedophilia. Yet Ball refrains from making any judgments of these characters. Instead, he lets the viewer come to his or her own decisions because the characters may not always be wholly likable, but at least they come off as real people. I sympathized with Lester because he reminds me of adults I know who hate their lives and don’t do anything about it.

American Beauty’s themes are a little too familiar, but most of them work marvelously well. I liked the film’s suggestion that beauty can be found everywhere if we just open our eyes. Ball’s script seems to be saying that we’re just so involved with our petty problems we don’t take the time to notice the beauty around us. First time feature film director Sam Mendes does a fine job of underscoring that point through several clever, recurring visual metaphors, for example roses, in different scenes.

My favorite theme involves a later revelation concerning a character’s repressed homosexuality. I think even though we’re in the 90s and we’re supposed to be more accepting of homosexuality, it’s not always the case. This observation on the source of homophobia rings painfully true in the film. You’ll see that homophobia is pointless prejudice. I’d explain this point further, but I can’t or else I’d certainly spoil the movie.

The voice-over was the one major flaw

The only major flaw in Ball’s superb script is Kevin Spacey’s voice-over. God knows I’ve always hated that cheap device, and it’s quite odd that Ball would choose to use it for the film. The movie’s plot and themes are strong enough to be developed on their own without any assistance. Not only does the narration kill any possible dramatic tension, but it also serves to spoil the plot. Only at the film’s conclusion does Spacey’s voice-over work to emphasize the film’s various points without seeming forced or unbelievable.

The film’s best performance comes from Academy Award© winning actor Kevin Spacey, who’s never been better. If he doesn’t get nominated for another Oscar, then I’ll know for sure that the voting members of the Academy must have slept through this movie. Also excellent is Annette Bening, who strikes a note of genuine emotion in her role. She too deserves to be nominated, but voters may forget about her splendid performance because her role is a lot less showy and isn’t meant to evoke as much empathy as Spacey’s. Chris Cooper, who plays Ricky’s father, is also fantastic in his role. Even though his character is written as just another rigid military control-freak, he manages to come off as a real person and not just a stereotype.

While American Beauty isn’t without its flaws, for the most part it’s a dazzling movie. Along with Three Seasons and Run Lola Run, American Beauty is one of the best films I have seen so far this year.