I expect that James Kaelan and Blessing Yen’s “America the Beautiful” might end up being one of the most polarizing and controversial films of Slamdance 2019. I can also imagine it might draw some jeers from the audience that might draw some preconceived notions from the outset. Even as someone who has been on the opposite side of the whole MAGA wave, I liked the idea of a found footage thriller based around Trump fanaticism. The idea is very good it’s just that the movie itself leaves so much to be desired, mainly because of its habit of being very abrupt and badly paced.
Filmed entirely vertically on an Iphone, and set after the 2016 presidential election, we meet Billy Reynolds, a man who moves to San Bernadino with his wife in a “fixer upper” house. Though he plans to use his phone to chronicle the maintenance and construction of his house, the videos soon descend in to a darker path. When he and his wife meet their new neighbors, they’re surprised to learn that they’ve very militant racists. Though Billy decides to distance himself from them, an incident in his house draws him to his new neighbors. Soon he is initiated in an alt-right militia known as the Sentries, and begins documenting every step from the bonding, their harassment of locals, and his inevitable introduction in to firearms.
Although I understand what “America the Beautiful” is going for, it’s a film in desperate need of some maintenance. Mainly because it’s only an hour in length, I’m not sure where this film will be shown and for what purpose. It definitely has a message to be conveyed about fanaticism, and the horrific rise of racism and weaponized hate mongers emboldened by the president, but the movie fails to really grab the audience. It’s much too fast paced, and doesn’t offer too much exposition on any of the characters. We get to spend some considerable time with Billy and his wife, and writer James Kaelan establishes that she was a Hilary Clinton supporter, but it just feels like some clunky foreshadowing and nothing more. As for the film’s antagonists, there isn’t a lot of back story about them.
How did they descend in to this fanaticism? What triggered their own beliefs and penchant for violence? As for the incident that triggers Billy, it comes off much too light weight and limp. The directors also imply that the Sentries staged said event, but it’s never actually clarified or confirmed. I get why Billy would be upset, but there’s never a clear indication if the event that unfolds was severe enough for him to flip his belief system, or if these feelings he adopts were boiling underneath him the entire time. “America the Beautiful” adheres to this format that we’re watching events leading up to a crime edited in to courtroom evidence, but the format works too well. Though I think it has potential to grab big reactions and provocative debate from viewers, “America the Beautiful” ultimately feels hastily made, and downright half baked.
The Slamdance Film Festival runs every year from January 25th to January 31st.