The coming-of-age film, from “Lady Bird” or “Little Women,” is a classic. It is a genre that hits close to home for many, depicting a wide range of issues and emotions people experience during their teenage years. In “American Cherry,” however, the typical coming-of-age story takes a dark twist as the protagonists’ growing romance is distorted into something more sinister, and ultimately deadly.
It all begins when Eliza Stein (Sarah May Sommers) meets Finn Elliott (Hart Denton), a mysterious, troubled boy who quickly attaches himself to her. Despite Finn’s occasionally troubling comments and habits, Eliza finds herself enamored with him, and the two become attached at the hip as Finn begins a video diary of their time together. As the pair become closer and closer, however, Finn becomes intent on protecting Eliza from her dysfunctional family no matter the cost — and so begins his destructive downward spiral.
The audience is lulled again and again into a false sense of security, much like the impressionable, naive Eliza. At times, it’s easy to forget Finn’s many red flags as the narrative shifts focus to Eliza’s dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. However, “American Cherry” never takes too long to remind viewers that it is Finn who is narrating and that it is Finn who is rapidly growing more and more obsessive.
The acting at times can come across a bit stilted and awkward; the delivery doesn’t always land and some pauses stretch on just a tad too long. Nevertheless, “American Cherry” is definitely a breath of fresh air in its portrayal of teenagers. Where other films and shows turn their teenaged characters into atrocious caricatures, “American Cherry” is more grounded in reality. Adolescent interactions are certainly more reflective of real life, and the film becomes more engrossing for it. Sommers’ portrayal of Eliza in particular is sympathetic and entrancing as she struggles to make sense of her flawed family and the world around her.
The cinematography alone makes the film worth a watch: It’s stylistically beautiful and deeply nostalgic. Shot on Kodak 35mm, “American Cherry” presents striking visuals. Combined with occasionally shaky camera movements, the film comes alive in a way that is gorgeous and sentimental.
The way the film is shot in and of itself reflects Finn’s rapidly deteriorating psyche. The first half of the film is reminiscent of the typical coming-of-age film, accompanied by the comforting drone of bugs and birds in the background of their small town suburbia. However, the latter half does an exceptional job of reminding the audience that “American Cherry” is not just a romance film, but a psychological thriller. As the music distorts and the shot setups bring to mind other thrillers, “American Cherry” becomes deeply unsettling.
As the film comes to a close, what is left is a deeply troubling portrayal of mental illness. While “American Cherry” definitely succeeds in weaving a narrative that is both chilling and gripping, it unfortunately reinforces the common belief that mental illness goes hand-in-hand with violence — a disastrously common trope in media, especially with horrors and thrillers. It is utterly exhausting to see the sensationalized trope used again in what otherwise may be a compelling narrative. A tale of obsession intertwined with a coming-of-age in small town suburbia is interesting on its own, and it’s a shame that mental illness is once again used as a motive for violence when people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
As a whole, though, “American Cherry” is a fascinating examination of the rapid build-up and implosion of two teenagers’ romance amid increasing tensions and interpersonal strife. It undoubtedly fumbles in its poor exploration of mental illness, but its striking visuals and enthralling, disquieting narrative ultimately make it an interesting take on the coming-of-age genre.