American Movie (documentary)

“American Movie” is a documentary that proves something we need to be reminded of more often: Real life is funny, touching and interesting. You don’t have to manufacture wacky neighbors or kicks in the crotch; the people you see on the street are entertaining enough just being themselves.

Chris Smith’s documentary tells the story of Mark Borchardt, a resident of rural, white-trash Wisconsin whose dream is to become a filmmaker. Subtitled “The Making of ‘Northwestern,'” the movie begins with Mark’s film in the early stages. He quickly realizes, though, that he’ll never have enough money to make it unless he first makes some quick cash off the short film he never finished, called “Coven” (pronounced “cove-in,” because “cuv-in” sounds too much like “oven”).

So “Northwestern” is scrapped — we never even learn what it was going to be about — and production is re-started on “Coven.” Mark stars in it and directs it, and uses his friends and family as actors and crew members.

That’s where the comedy and poignancy of real life play out beautifully. He asks his mother, Monica, to be a Druid-ish extra in the gory horror film; she protests by saying she has too much shopping to do. His dad, Cliff, refuses to lend any more monetary support unless Mark cleans up the language. A scene in which Mark is supposed to ram another actor’s head through a cupboard door is positively hysterical, as the door has not been properly rigged to collapse when the head hits it.

Stealing every scene he’s in is Mark’s stoner musician friend Mike Schank. Nearly every anecdote he tells relates to drinking vodka and “partying.” He’s fabulously incompetent in every filmmaking capacity you can think of, but a pure joy to have around.

And then there’s Mark’s ridiculously old uncle, Bill, who has invested a large sum of money in the film, thereby earning the title “executive producer.” Mark’s relationship with Bill is the purest blend of humor and pathos, perfectly exemplifed when he has to give the old man a bath. The scene is incredibly funny, but very sweet, too: Here’s a 30-year-old adult, giving his elderly uncle a bath without a hint of condescension or unwillingness.

Mark himself is quite a prize as well, a perfectly non-photogenic loser with a personality so unsavory, it’s appealing. He describes himself as half-Christian, half-Satanist, and has a way with words that is funnier than he probably realizes. (His opinion on some of the bad writing in his own script: “There’s some corny dialogue that would make the Pope weep.” Whatever THAT means.) His passion for achieving his dream of making a movie is truly remarkable, as he works tirelessly at it for months; yet he somehow still manages to seem like the kind of guy who never accomplishes anything.

All of these “performances” are stunning for the sheer fact that they’re not performances. They’re regular people, being themselves, often to the point of being embarrassing, consistently to the point of being funny. Mark and Uncle Bill have a relationship that is both amusing and touching; “American Movie” connects with its audience in exactly the same way.

A- (; R, abundant harsh profanity, some drug references.)