It would take a hard shell to withstand the calculated yet undeniably skillful melodrama of “An American Rhapsody.” Strongly autobiographical feature debut from established editor Eva Gardos plays the heartstrings with unapologetic precision. Nonetheless, pic needs rescuing from an often hurried and schematic plotline by pungent perfs and a vibrant sense of place. The audience award at the recent Nantucket fest and a warm response from the opening night crowd in Karlovy Vary suggest subject strikes a chord, although Stateside biz will be challenged by lack of knowledge of Hungarian political milieu and extensive subtitling of the Budapest segs.
In the early 1950s, ambitious Hungarian family man Peter (Tony Goldwyn) arranges to have his wife Margit (Nastassja Kinski), their two small daughters and himself smuggled out of an increasingly repressive Budapest. At the last minute they are forced to leave behind infant Suzanne, who is entrusted to Margit’s mother Helen (Agi Banfalvy) for eventual rendezvous in Vienna. Yet Helen can’t bring herself to give the baby over to a stranger, so while Peter and the distraught Margit survive a harrowing escape and travel to a picture postcard Cold War-era Los Angeles, Helen is imprisoned and Suzanne is placed with a kindly, older rural Hungarian couple, Teri (Zsuzsa Czinkoczi) and Jeno (Balazs Galko).
After Stalin’s death, the newly freed Helen picks up the now nearly 6-year-old Suzanne (Kelly Endresz Banlaki) from her foster parents on a pretext, then loads her on a plane bound for L.A. and the real family she doesn’t even know. The tyke is at first fascinated by the huge hamburgers and cars, but by the time she’s a teenager (Scarlett Johansson) in the thick of the 1960s, Suzanne’s become a rebellious delinquent embarrassed by the severely strict mother with whom she argues violently and nearly estranged from her older sister.
Suzanne persuades her father to honor a long-standing promise to let her revisit Budapest, against Margit’s will. While there she makes her peace with Teri and Jeno and learns from Helen the real reason for Margit’s desire to leave Hungary. Returning to the West Coast, the family embraces with newfound emotion; “We are who we are because of our past,” says Margit.
Taut early sequences give way to a breathless narrative with plenty of time for the convenient iconography of childhood (a child’s tea set, a red bicycle) but no chance to explain the link between Margit’s early letter-writing campaign to notables of the day and the eventual American Red Cross sponsorship of Suzanne’s trip west (apparently a true fact from helmer’s own past) or to plumb the effect of bickering between Margit and the pubescent Suzanne on the rest of the family.
Yet Gardos has a clear touch with talent, evidenced by a strong turn from Goldwyn as the wise and compassionate Peter and the scene-stealing adorableness of Banlaki as the puzzled yet brave little Suzanne. Elemer Ragalyi’s lensing alternates between probing intimacy and evocative location compositions, while Alex Tavoularis’ fine production design skillfully re-creates two turbulent decades in two very different countries.