Growing up with two gay dads is hard enough today, much less in Cape Cod circa 1973, the promising setup of Gwen Wynne’s “American Primitive,” a wistful what-might-have-been treatment of the director’s own upbringing. Reliving the period through the eyes of two sisters provides a fresh take on the otherwise tired coming-out genre, though the whole project feels too much like therapy through filmmaking, with Wynne offering a hindsight-enhanced “do-over” that’s out of place with the era and its attitudes. Her uneven debut should attract LGBT fest interest but stands little chance in commercial release.
What “American Primitive” has going for it is the dynamic between the Goodhart girls, who look and behave like real sisters. The more mature, popular Madeline (Danielle Savre) attracts the eye of the class hunk (Corey Sevier) and lands a spot on the tennis team, while Daisy (Skye McCole Bartusiak), “the poet,” is more socially awkward and still a long way from accepting their mother’s recent passing.
It’s hard to say whether their father Harry’s (Tate Donovan) widower status is more than a contrivance (letting him off the hook for potentially betraying his wife), but it certainly makes the psychology with his daughters more interesting. Does his new partner somehow undermine his love for their mother? When and how did he meet Theo (played by Adam Pascal, looking like “Arrested Development’s” Tobias Funke with his paste-on lambchop sideburns)? And were there other same-sex lovers before him?
The pic conveniently sidesteps such issues, favoring the clear-cut but far too simplistic explanation that Harry loved his wife, and now he loves Theo just as fondly. Of course, he doesn’t tell the girls this at first, inviting Theo to move in without explaining the nature of their relationship. Madeline figures it out on her own after seeing the two men dancing together at a local gay bar (in a scene so feverishly shot and edited, so full of excessive split-screens and crotch shots that it’s hard to tell what’s going on).
Madeline spends the rest of the movie torturing herself about the implications, while Harry occupies himself trying to pass as straight. The title, which refers to Harry and Theo’s work crafting traditional folk-art furniture, also serves to remind younger auds of less enlightened times: It’s easy to forget that the American Psychiatric Assn. deemed homosexuality a mental disorder until 1973, and being found out (as he is by his in-laws, setting up the pic’s soapy third-act showdown), Harry would have faced the very real prospect of losing custody of his children. For the same reason, the characters do not yet have the vocabulary to address their situation, a valid observation that proves dramatically awkward.
Wynne raises interesting questions, but is content to be mushy with her morality, favoring lessons like, “Stand up for who you are” and, “Your dad’s a part of your deal.” This last bit comes from local clam-digger Spoke White (Nickelodeon’s Josh Peck), whose overly earnest acting style makes the character seem either stoned or disabled. The cast’s performances and accents are all over the map, as is the hand-held camerawork, with Chris Chomyn cropping the Super 16 frame to widescreen dimensions in such a way that enhances the grain and occasionally decapitates characters.