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'My American Cousin' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 19, 1986

Time was teen movies were made for teens -- tacky, lusty, "Porky's"-pig movies. These days, they're made for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the '50s when they came of age. And quite frankly, they ought to pay moviemakers subsidies to stop making so many of them.

But since "My American Cousin" is here already, we'll make an exception. Even though it is another wistful, little adolescent memoir, it's more real than most, and it's one of only a handful told from a girl's point of view (not counting Tammy and Gidget, of course). All dressed up in crinolines and ponytails, its kids don't say, "See you later alligator;" they say, "Tough toenails." It's not retro like "Back to the Future," but faded and authentic, like a Bell & Howell 8mm home movie.

The film feels a little awkward, like its coltish Canadian heroine, a 12-year-old with a terrible crush on her California cousin. Writer-director Sandy Wilson, recalling her own first infatuation, casts newcomer Margaret Langrick in the leading role. And one of the picture's six Genies (Canadian Oscars) went to Langrick for her delightful debut. A second went to costar John Wildman as her cousin Butch, an exotic American with a curvaceous red Caddy and well-oiled ducktail. Both young people are appealing, but Langrick, now 14, makes an archetypal pre-teen.

As Sandy, she's a peevish, impatient pre-teen with a flat chest and a stubby ponytail. "Nothing ever happens," she writes in her diary, flopping on the bed in the way only young girls can flop. All around her are the scenic mountains of British Columbia and a sapphire-colored lake for swimming. But what does a twitchy kid care about scenery?

Sandy is prepared for a boring summer of cherry-picking and household chores when Butch arrives in a cloud of dust. Mr. Rock 'n' Roll promises to liven things up in the Okanagan Valley. Sandy's conservative parents aren't exactly thrilled by this surprise visitor but they make him welcome anyway.

Sandy's father, a stiff patriarch played to the hilt by Richard Donat, decides to tell his daughter about the facts of life. "The female excites the male who is overcome with uncontrollable urges," he begins. Thus cautioned -- but now even more curious -- Sandy and her giggly girlfriends beg Butch for a ride in his convertible.

"I can't be seen with you girls in my Cadillac," he says to the scrawny kids in their glasses and chiffon scarves. "Why not?" asks Sandy. "You're too ugly," he adds. It wasn't easy coming of age in the '50s, just as it isn't easy coming of age in the '80s. At least now there are contact lenses.

In an attempt to introduce an issue, the screenplay contrasts Butch's brash, American arrogance with the Canadian's stuffy naivete' -- an aspect that probably works better north of the border. But "Cousin's" greatest success is its universality. It rings true.

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