Editors' pick

An American Affair

An American Affair movie poster
MPAA rating: R
Genre: Drama
An adolescent boy in 1963 Washington, D.C., befriends a beautiful blond neighbor (Gretchen Mol) who has ties to President Kennedy.
Starring: Cameron Bright, Gretchen Mol, James Rebhorn
Director: William Sten Olsson
Running time: 1:33
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Editorial Review

"An American Affair" doesn't feel like a Washington movie at first, even though it dabbles in government conspiracy theories and has a main character who's sleeping with John F. Kennedy.

The typical Washington movie seems to have that museum smell. "An American Affair" is fresh, earthy and open: maybe because it plays out on leafy residential streets, maybe because it's not about state secrets as much as it's about friendship, maybe because most of it was shot in Baltimore (but never mind that).

The film begins at a Catholic grade school with the main character, 13-year-old Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright), peeking at a Playboy magazine, adorable in its '60s tameness.

Then we see Gretchen Mol, who plays Catherine Caswell, a Washington socialite on the skids. She paints. She drinks. She does drugs. She gets visits at night from a certain VIP with a Secret Service detail.

Adam, driven by hormones, offers to do yardwork for this beautiful neighbor. A friendship develops, and the Washington as a city in which to learn and grow and exult collides with the Washington as a city of shadows and secrets and scores being settled.

"Form is dead," Catherine tells Adam, explaining both the aesthetic abandon of her avant-garde paintings and, on another level, the shifting motives of the movie. The film rises above its conventions. Just when it seems to be a fable of sexual initiation, "An American Affair" pivots away from sex. Just when it seems to be a re-dredging of the Kennedy mystique, it pushes past history. Thoughtfully and imperfectly, it dramatizes the flight from childhood, the surrender to adulthood and the pieces of us that survive, through the friendship between world-weary Catherine and fresh-faced Adam.

Mol, with her blond curls and dainty voice, walks the line between intrigue and inscrutability. Bright plays Adam not as a tortured adolescent but as an even-tempered boy on whom the world's realities are gradually dawning: The nuns at school aren't infallible. His parents' rules are mostly unreasonable. Camelot is a formal construction, and form is dead.

-- Dan Zak (Feb. 27, 2009)

Contains sexual content and language.