Even if the film festival guides hadn't reminded me that the low-key indie comedy American Fork came from one of the Napoleon Dynamiteproducers ... I think I might have figured it out on my own. That's not to say that the films are all that similar, really, but that they both feature main characters who are grown-ups on the exterior and trapped in a state of perpetually unpleasant adolescence beneath the surface. Not particularly deep beneath the surface, either.
First-time screenwriter Hubbel Palmer stars as Tracy Orbison, a 6-foot-4-inch massive mound of a young man, and one who has only a few minor things going for him. Tracy seems to enjoy his dead-end job at the local supermarket, and he's got a mother and a sister who genuinely seem to care for the guy, but beyond that Tracy is as insecure, immature and rudderless as a guy can possibly be. The clueless yet strangely ingratiating misfit bounces from hobby to hobby and from acquaintance to acquaintance, desperately looking for something (and someone) to share his time with. Failing that, the guy simply loves to jot away in his journal.
One of Tracy's more recent obsessions is that of acting: He tries to befriend a local actor, a jackass who turns out to be as arrogant as he is insincere -- and Tracy greets the eventual disappointment with a sigh known only to the frequently disappointed. Then he tries to befriend a teenager who just started working at the supermarket -- but the kid's sleazy friends abuse Tracy's good nature in a really terrible way. And then come some seriously unpleasant accusations that have Tracy ducking into alleys, afraid to even show his face in his own neighborhood. Sounds pretty grim, glum and depressing, doesn't it? Thankfully, and to Palmer's credit, American Fork is admirably matter-of-fact about its antagonist and his ceaseless barrage of emotional road blocks. Whenever the movie seems like it's about to get weepy or artificial or "inspirational," Palmer and director Chris Bowman rein the thing in with another dose of the realistically mundane. (Mundane yet still more than compelling enough to enjoy, strangely enough.) It's a difficult tone to get right: Go too far in one direction and Tracy is a fat, stupid buffoon -- but lean too heavily in the other direction and the guy's painful misadventures come across as unnecessarily cruel.
Aside from Palmer's brave and plainly sympathetic performance, American Fork is stocked with strong supporting turns: Kathleen Quinlan is her typically excellent self as Tracy's stressed-out mom; Mary Lynn Rajskub (yes, that's Chloe from 24) is great as the sister who's got a few emotional "issues" of her own; and William Baldwin steals more than a few scenes as a low-end actor who parades around the proceedings like he's the next Olivier. Newcomer Vincent Caso is also quite impressive as the teenager we're not quite sure we can trust.
American Fork is not likely to copy the box office success (or eventual cult status) of Napoleon Dynamite, but in many ways it's actually a better film. Sure, it doesn't have the catch phrases or the funny hair of Napoleon, but American Fork does seem to have a bit more affection for its characters than the other film does. (American Fork could take place in reality; I never once felt the same thing about the amusing but excessively broad Napoleon Dynamite.) Best of all, the movie closes with a strangely satisfying ending that never comes across as sappy or unrealistic. As far as the title goes, I noticed two types of "fork" within the movie: The eating utensil and the "fork in the road" variety. Let's just say the title fits the flick ... even if both are a little weird.