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Nostalgic ‘My American Cousin’ is a tender coming-of-age tale that time forgot

Nostalgic ‘My American Cousin’ is a tender coming-of-age tale that time forgot

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My American Cousin
Written and Directed by Sandy Wilson
Canada, 1985

Sandy Wilson’s My American Cousin is an endearing, semi-autobiographical tale centering on one golden summer in a precocious girl’s life. In 1959 British Columbia, 12-year-old Sandy (Margaret Langrick) lives on a gloriously scenic ranch populated with her family and a group of friends who help out on her father’s cherry orchard. It’s an idyllic setting, but the terminally bored pre-teen is histrionically unimpressed.

 “NOTHING EVER HAPPENS!” she scrawls in her journal.

But excitement unexpectedly arrives when Sandy’s 17-year-old American cousin Butch (John Wildman) pulls up in a dazzling, red Cadillac convertible. With duck-tail hair, pressed blue jeans, and a pack of cigarettes wrapped in the sleeve of his white t-shirt, he is a walking James Dean clone, which is especially exotic in a town whose theater has yet to play Rebel Without A Cause.

Sandy’s conservative parents are wary of Butch’s sudden appearance, wondering if he’s gotten a girl “in trouble” or is running from the law. But the lad is soon offered a room and a job picking cherries on the ranch, because, as Sandy’s father observes, “He comes from a good family. Americans, of course, but a good family.”

Sandy’s girlfriends are smitten with Butch’s tales of paved California streets, 24-hour rock n’ roll radio stations and America’s plans to go to the moon, but the boys in town are less taken with the Yankee interloper who seems to work too little and flirt too much. Meanwhile, Sandy basks in the drama her cousin stirs up and takes inspiration from his rebellious ways, skipping family dinner and sneaking off to attend the town dance.

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My American Cousin has been compared, perhaps glibly, to American Graffiti. Like that classic coming-of-age film, it exudes a precise sense of time and place and revels in small, nostalgic details that evoke an ostensibly more innocent time. But what makes it unique is its tender but unsentimental presentation of a young girl’s burgeoning adolescence in a film genre largely dominated by the experiences of boys. While the titular character is Butch, he is merely a catalyst for Sandy’s growing sense of restlessness and possibility. She imagines a life for herself far beyond her tiny town and any constraints society places on her gender. When she confides to Butch that she wants to run away, he calls her a “crazy chick,” but he’s clearly impressed with her fearlessness.

The film is also unabashedly Canadian, providing an amusing mid-20th century snapshot of Canada’s ever-conflicted relationship with the United States. Sandy’s stodgy British grandmother admonishes her to speak English with a proper upper-class lilt–water should be pronounced “wah-tah” not “wadder”– and simply can’t understand why Americans prefer coffee to tea. And her loving but starchy parents speak with stilted middling accents that bridge the gap between the U.K.-influenced older generations and a new generation obsessed with U.S. slang and pop culture. America’s self-absorbed cluelessness is also winked at when Butch takes a girl out on a date.

 “I used to live in Toronto,” she tells him between kisses.

 “Where’s that?” he asks.

Wilson’s screenplay is warm, funny and keenly observed. She believably portrays the ebb and flow of growing up, as teenagers bravely chase after the adventures of adulthood only to run back toward the familiarity and safety of youth when things get a bit overwhelming. For example, when Butch takes Sandy and her friends out for a joyride in his convertible, the girls bask in the sun and gleefully playact older versions of themselves. But after a drag race leads to a brief police chase, the illusion is shattered and one of the girls cries that she wants to go home. And while Butch calls Sandy a “little girl,” it eventually becomes clear he is visiting Canada to dodge adult troubles at home and enjoy one last summer as a boy.

My American Cousin won six Genie Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress in 1986. It’s filled with natural, winning performances, particularly from Langrick, who was making her film debut. Despite its accolades, the film hasn’t been released on DVD or streaming services. However, Wilson maintains a scrapbook-like web site for her creation that offers screen tests, behind-the-scenes photos and scans of old film reviews. It’s a loving tribute to a movie that has been lost in time but deserves to be discovered by a new generation of film lovers.