Coming-of-age stories of any kind, be they a movie, book, play, or show, always run the risk of coming across as too didactic or inauthentic about the ages they are depicting. These flawed productions look back as a jaded adult would, failing to realize the enormity of a first heartbreak or a falling out with a friend. They often try too hard to imitate teens speaking with fabricated slang and forced catchphrases. However, a coming-of-age story told adequately not only allows the audience to get a glimpse of what types of adults these characters will become but harnesses the natural energy of youth into something electrifying. Demanding the audience’s attention from the start, allowing problems to be as dramatic and significant as the kids believe they are, even if they are trivial in the grand scheme of things.
An American In Texas, a new coming-of-age movie from co-writer/ director Anthony Pedone, opens with the president announcing the official start of the Gulf War. Interspersed throughout the real news footage is a flurry of masked teens destroying a house with bats, hammers, and other tools. From this brief opening, it becomes impossible to look away as the movie unfolds realistically and intriguingly. Chad (James Paxton) is the lead singer of a punk band with his friends Paul (J.R. Villarreal), Billy (Tony Cavalero), & Zac (Sam Dillon). They are saving all their money from menial jobs to escape the small town of Victoria, Texas after graduation to record a few songs and make it big. Along the way, Chad falls for the new girl in town, Kara (Charlotte Best), and they all cross the line with their parents and the cops.
“…makes you want to pump your fist in the air.”
So far this probably sounds somewhat generic and pedestrian. But there is an honesty to the characters that overcomes the plot’s more cliched moments. Zac and Paul have a big fight and, while it is over a trivial misunderstanding about their band Surgeon General’s Warning, it is resolved in a way that makes sense. It’s the kind of drama that seems like big stakes at age 17, but diminishes the more you learn about the world. Kara and Chad have a falling out but revelations give more weight to this issue, and its resolution is authentic and sweet.
Beyond Pedone and Stephen Floyd’s sincere script lies outstanding visuals. Given this is a drama, that the film contains several memorable sequences and distinct imagery proves Pedone is a director to watch. Considering this is only his third film, and first full narrative, the way the film’s set design, the interplay of shadow and light, and camera angles all gracefully immerse you into the headspace of the ensemble is impressive. The two directors of photography, Bianca Butti and Julian Quiambao, have lensed a film with evocative scenery, making the characters and their plights simultaneously volatile and beautiful. The scene shown off in the most common poster for the movie- involving fireworks- elegantly illustrates the attitude of these teens, and does so in visually engaging fashion.
“…memorable sequences and distinct imagery.”
Of course, all of this would be for naught if the acting were not up to par. Everyone proves up to the task, though, with Paxton commanding the screen with ease and mesmerizing the audience with each spontaneous action. Cavalero is having fun, and that enthusiasm translates well from the screen. Just after the one full gig, we see the band perform he is out mingling with the crowd looking as content and pleased as can be. J.R. Villarreal is the emotional core, though, and, as Paul, he is astounding. It morphs into a tender and sweet performance by the tragic end. Charlotte Best bursts off the screen with charisma to spare and hits every beat from the joyous highs to the shuddersome lows. Sam Dillon is spellbinding and his breakdown at the end of the film- seeing him destroy a house himself- is so persuasive and compelling, it is no doubt one of the best performances of 2017.
Holt Boggs is Earl Doonan, Kara’s stepdad, and he plays the slimy, sadistic angle well. Anthony Pedone himself has a small role as a detective, and he acquits himself very well. Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra has a pivotal minor part as the mayor of Victoria. He plays it straight and is immensely enjoyable. Each member of the cast does an incredible job, and even when it seems like stunt casting, such as the case with Barry Corbin’s three minutes of screentime, the director is still able to get the absolute most of his capable players.
“…the cast does an incredible job…”
SGW (the abbreviation for the band) play with the manic abandon primarily associated with Fugazi and Bad Religion. It does appear that each of the actors is playing their respective instruments themselves, lending their practices and shows a lived-in quality that allows you to feel their commitment to the music. That the soundtrack, excluding what SGW plays, makes you want to pump your fist in the air with all your might probably isn’t surprising given the plot and who is in it. However, there is artistry in choosing the right song for the right moment; just ask Suicide Squad, whose soundtrack was full of enjoyable and fist-pumping songs, though their placement in the movie was nonsensical and incongruous with the scene at hand most of the time. Here, though, each song illuminates the characters’ inner thoughts in a way reminiscent of song usage in American Graffiti. That the actual score, courtesy of Trevor Dunn, is just as inspiring and great perfectly illustrates how hard everyone involved worked to make each moment feel as real and human as possible.
The beats the story hit aren’t exactly new, but it is told beautifully. Favoring visuals and lighting to get into the characters’ headspace, all performed with great aplomb, An American In Texas is an emotionally fulfilling and exuberant experience. Seek this out as soon as possible.
An American In Texas (2017) Directed by Anthony Pedone. Written by Anthony Pedone, Stephen Floyd. Starring J.R. Villarreal, James Paxton, Charlotte Best, Holt Boggs, Sam Dillon, Anthony Pedone, Jello Biafra.