Somewhere over the rainbow

Scarlett Johansson, as Suzanne, explores the landscapes of self, family and culture in <i>An American Rhapsody</i>.

Scarlett Johansson, as Suzanne, explores the landscapes of self, family and culture in An American Rhapsody.

Rated 2.0

Teenage Suzanne sits in the dark, surveying the famed Chain Bridge of Budapest. “It was the summer of 1965. I was 15 and my life was already falling apart, so I came back to Hungary where it all began.” So goes the opening narration of An American Rhapsody, an episodic, marginally stirring story of relocation, reunion and self-discovery that begins with harrowing detail but develops gaping holes as a decade and a half of potentially volcanic events and relationships is molded into a 106-minute movie.

This autobiographical drama depicts how writer-director Éva Gárdos was left behind as an infant when her parents fled the harsh Communist rule of Hungary, spent her first six years living behind the Iron Curtain and was reunited with her biological kin in California. It’s a story about culture shock, guilt, oppression, freedom and family dynamics that just doesn’t firmly wrap its arms around its characters or core mother-daughter conflicts.

Gárdos is a veteran film editor (Mask, Barfly) who brings more honesty and dignity to her directorial debut than emotional wallop. Her aversion to sensationalism gives some scenes a sense of muscular restraint, but also undercuts the film’s galvanizing tension and trauma. There’s a helluva story here screaming to be unleashed. Unfortunately, its complexity and provocative nuances concerning the effect of the past on the present, child adoption, American permissiveness, immigration and the toxic effects of political repression on individuals and family often feel too manicured and rushed, especially during the film’s crucial, final act. A stronger narrative thread is needed to bind the vignettes here into a substantial, coherent entity.

Margit (Nastassja Kinski) and Peter (Tony Goldwyn) are part of upper-crust Hungarian society as the Cold War of the 1950s creeps into their lives. She is an aristocrat; he is a publisher. Their arrest by authorities for rather muddy reasons is imminent so the couple decides to flee to Austria. The journey is dangerous. They take their eldest daughter with them but leave Suzanne with grandmother. They dress as peasants and rely on a “guide” to smuggle them across the border.

A plan for another guide to later bring Suzanne to Vienna is aborted after grandmother is told the baby will be drugged to keep her quiet and stuffed into a potato sack. Grandma is also subject to arrest, so she passes Suzanne to a couple living in the Hungarian countryside. Meanwhile, Margit and Peter must use their visas to enter America. The rest of the film jumps between Suzanne’s rural life, her real family’s life in California, her reunion with them and its aftermath.

The acting is commendable. Kelly Endresz-Banlaki is a wonder as the young Suzanne. The scene in which she rises for her first morning in suburbia, dresses in peasant garb and explores her neighborhood is a showstopper. Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World) as her troubled teen counterpart makes a credible pre-Moon Zappa Valley Girl.

Kinski, who once appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine draped only in a live python, burnishes her Ingrid Bergman beauty with Loretta Young melancholy. She slides readily from desperation into overprotective funk as a mom who, once robbed of seeing her baby daughter’s first steps, literally becomes her jailer. Goldwyn, the villain in Ghost and title voice for Disney’s Tarzan, plays the well-meaning Peter. Zsuzsa Czinkóczi and Balázs Galkó are earthy as Suzanne’s surrogate parents.

The early sepia footage of 1950s Hungary works well. The reinvention of early California suburbia rivals that of Edward Scissorhands. What the picture needs is more emotional glue and character-building, and less reliance on pop songs (“I’m All Shook Up,” “Primrose Lane,”) to conjure up mood and mindsets.

At one point, Suzanne, who has just fired bullets into her bedroom door in an attempt to escape its confines, is told: “Do you know that in Hungary people disappear for saying the wrong word and you shoot up your room.” In a lesser film, this line would be a howler. In a film like Rhapsody, in which “we all make mistakes out of love,” it should give us the chills. It does neither.