American Girl, written and directed by Al Robbins, begins with 19-year-old Sydney (Jamila Gray) in an argument with her stepfather. Having finally had enough of his berating and belittling, she gets into her car and drives toward Atlanta to see her estranged father. When the vehicle breaks down, Sydney hitchhikes but is picked up by a crazy lady who possibly wants to traffick her. The intelligent but impetuous young adult does escape, but barely.
Chase (Chase Gutzmore) witnessed the whole thing and offers a small helping hand, despite not having much himself. Chase and Sydney become fast friends, with the gay man showing her the best way to walk to her friend’s job. Tasha (Ashanti Harris) is delighted to see her buddy again and lets her stay at a place, at least for a bit. Tasha’s boyfriend is surprised by this revelation, though he is okay with it.
But then, Sydney shoots herself in the foot when she mouths off to two cops breaking up a party due to excessive noise. Beyond the issues of her race, she’s African-American, Sydney has a beer in her hand; reminder, she is not yet 21. This rightfully pisses off Tasha, who tosses her out after they get home unharmed by police, no thanks to her supposed friend. Now, Sydney is left broke with nowhere to stay in a city where she has no one to turn to. Will her intelligence allow her to survive on the streets, or will her impulsive, abrasive attitude leave her in a ditch on the side of the road?
“…Sydney is left broke with nowhere to stay in a city where she has no one…”
American Girl is about as independent as it gets. Several scenes have a run-and-gun feel. It seems like Robbins and crew set up a camera quickly, got their shots, then moved on, production permits be damned. This leads to technical issues, like the ambient sound being far too loud in some scenes while completely absent in others where it should be present (a walk down the street after robbing a creepy guy, for example). Also, the editing is occasionally a second or so behind where it should be, creating odd pauses in the flow of conversation.
However, this filmmaking style allows each sequence to feel natural and realistic. This especially comes through in the performances. Gray plays both sides — savvy, determined versus naivete, and lapse of judgment — to the hilt, creating a character audiences like but also understand when people dress down for acting without thinking. Gutzmore is quite good as well, effortlessly likable and sweet. The scenes between Sydney and Chase feel natural and lived-in. The supporting players also do an excellent job, for the most part.
American Girl is a searing look at what smart young people of color must deal with in the United States of America. While the editing and sound design could be shored up and tightened for a more polished production, those issues don’t detract from the heart of the message. The cast all fit their parts like a glove, and the ending, while a little rushed, works wonderfully.
For more information on American Girl, visit Bottom Of The Net Filmworks.
"…feel[s] natural and realistic."