If originality and eccentricity were prime rib, “American Fork” would be clogging arteries from Yellow Knife to Spoon River. Instead, this droll, melancholic comedy about a large and large-hearted misfit will prove more of an acquired taste for most auds, although a cultish following and continued quirkiness are sure to follow from helmer Chris Bowman and writer-thesp Hubbel Palmer.
Gentle giant Tracy Orbison (Palmer) works in a grocery store, where he wages unconventional verbal warfare with co-worker Helen (Rae Ritke) and writes poetry that would make Hallmark blush (“What color is your world…?”). At home, he keeps a box of doughnuts under his bed and seems oblivious to the fact he is huge, despite constant, harping reminders from his acerbic mother Agnes (a perfectly pitched Kathleen Quinlan).
There’s something amiss in the family Orbison: Sister Peggy (Mary Lynn Rajskub), has a few screws loose and Dad long ago escaped the asylum. But both the script and Bowman’s direction keep matters at a low simmer, never going for the broad laugh when one might have been easy.
As a result, the viewer never knows quite what to make of Tracy, or his creators’ attitude about him. The fact that “Napoleon Dynamite” producer Jeremy Coon is on board here will lead some auds to expect goofy hilarity, but that’s not what “American Fork” is interested in serving up. Tracy, although quick to bury his sorrows in calories, never seems obsessed with his weight, but he does want validation. Whether he seeks it through the acting class he takes with the insufferably egotistical Truman Hope (a purposefully hammy William Baldwin) or from his young co-worker Kendis (Vincent Caso), he’s always looking in the wrong places. The result is a character who’s too needy for outright sympathy, too self-aware for pity, but who keeps the viewer off-balance enough to sustain morbid curiosity.
Palmer comes across as an unusual talent, not just because of his size or the quirkiness of his screenwriting, but for the androgynous quality he brings to Tracy. Wearing the second-worst haircut of the season (after Javier Bardem’s in “No Country for Old Men”), he’s an ugly duckling who remains one. This won’t appeal to viewers who like their resolutions tidy and upbeat, but it lends a certain integrity to this plot-lite, gravity-free profile of a character who is constantly off-balance. And while it all makes perfect sense emotionally, it’s not particularly compelling dramatically.
What “American Fork” accomplishes most effectively is introducing some talented filmmakers and actors (Nick Lashaway, as the ringleader of a gang of young slackers, is terrif) and reintroducing a few vets who need a more substantial project to make their case.
Production values are adequate.