Movie Review: 'An American Affair'

Gretchen Mol brings shades of Monroe and Bacall to her role as a D.C. socialite on the skids.
Gretchen Mol brings shades of Monroe and Bacall to her role as a D.C. socialite on the skids. (Screen Media Films)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

"An American Affair" doesn't feel like a Washington movie at first, even though it dabbles in local conspiracy theory, makes dramatic use of the "Exorcist" steps and has a main character who's sleeping with John F. Kennedy. The typical Washington movie, even if it's a thriller, has that museum smell. "An American Affair" is fresh, earthy and open -- maybe because it plays out in homey parlors and 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 first 15 minutes, however, suggest the movie will be a gooey, nostalgic romp through the Wikipedia version of 1963. The opening credits run over black-and-white newsreel of the space race, racial unrest, the Cuban missile crisis, the Camelot of JFK. It opens at a Catholic school to present the main character, 13-year-old Adam Stafford, as a bullied loner beaten down by the nuns and reprimanded by his conservative parents. His one indulgence is a Playboy magazine, adorable in its '60s tameness, which he keeps, of course, under the mattress. The setup is entirely too sentimental.

Then "An American Affair" shifts into a lower gear and begins a steep, bumpy climb toward profundity. It introduces Gretchen Mol, the late-'90s "It" girl who vanished into Hollywood's morgue of starlets and came back to life with a tantalizing performance in 2006's "The Notorious Bettie Page." Mol plays Adam's neighbor Catherine Caswell, a Washington socialite on the skids. She paints. She drinks. She does drugs. She gets visits at night from a man with a Secret Service detail. Conveniently, she does all this in full view of Adam's bedroom window.

Catherine is clearly inspired by Mary Meyer, the real-life Washington socialite who trysted with Kennedy and was slain within a year of his assassination, but "An American Affair" is more focused on Adam than D.C. lore. Adam, driven by hormones, offers to do yardwork for Catherine, and she accepts. A friendship develops based on mutual respect -- of his innocence and purity, of her beauty and connection to Camelot -- and two Washingtons collide: Washington as a city in which to learn and grow, and Washington as a city of shadows, secrets and scores being settled.

An earnest, fictional coming-of-age story is squeezed from a bitter, true-life local tragedy. And it works. It tampers a bit with broader history in pursuit of drama, but it never claims or pretends to be inspired by true events. It's free of that musty obligation.

"Form is dead," Catherine tells Adam early in their friendship, explaining both her avant-garde paintings and, on other levels, the joy of defying the narrow expectations of the world. Yes, there are hints of Mrs. Robinson in Catherine and, yes, the plot employs some contrived CIA trickery to reach its desired end, but 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 lethal Kennedy mystique, it pushes past history. Ultimately, it dramatizes the flight from childhood, the surrender to adulthood and the pieces of us that survive the transition.

There's lots going on here, and the actors are the grounding force. Mol, with her blond curls and dainty voice, exudes a Marilyn Monroe-like vulnerability that masks a Lauren Bacall-like edge. She walks the line between intrigue and inscrutability. Cameron Bright plays Adam not as a wide-eyed adolescent caught up in conspiracy but as an even-tempered boy on whom the world's messy realities are gradually dawning:

The nuns at school aren't infallible.

His parents' rules are unreasonable.

Camelot is an illusion.

That doesn't matter, according to Catherine. Camelot is an artificial construction, a public perception. The things that matter are closer, deeper, self-generated, unkillable. You've got to grow up to discover what those things are.

An American Affair (96 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexual content and language.

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