American Beauty revisited

I recently purchased the screenplay to the 1999 movie “American Beauty”, directed by Alan Ball. It’s my favorite movie of all time and since I love reading and writing, I spent some time at the bookstore, and this one just jumped at me. I then started re-watching the movie and read the script along with it; it reads like it practically wrote itself. It’s exactly 100 pages long and looks like a modern comic book.

I first got to watch American Beauty while I was working at Hoyts movie theater in Willimantic, Connecticut. It was one of the greatest movies to sell tickets and popcorn for. Even after all these years, and watching it about 100 times, I think I finally understood it.

American Beauty is about Lester Burnham, a man in his forties who lives in a house with a red door, together with his wife and teenage daughter. We live the story through his eyes, and he tells us how in less than a year, he’ll be dead. We fade into a suburban US neighborhood while Lester Burnham tells us how his wife and he have grown apart, yet she manages to keep a perfect façade, and he introduces his daughter Jane, who daringly looks into the camera and answers affirmatively to the question whether her boyfriend should put an end to her father’s sad little life.

The story evolves as Lester Burnham is forced to support his daughter at her High School Basketball event, where she performs as a cheerleader with her squad. While he entered the school gym annoyed, falling over, and wishing he was at home catching the James Bond marathon on TV, the cheerleaders start performing. We zoom in on Angela Hayes – the all American cheerleader. Lester Burnham suddenly only has eyes for her, the other dancers, the audience, the basketball game, his wife next to him – nothing exists anymore.

Once he snaps out of his daydream, he is introduced to his fantasy after the show is over. His sad little life suddenly has meaning again. Angela looks confident, and as she drives her friend Jane home, she boasts about how many boys she’s been with and that she thinks Lester is “kinda cute”.

Jane leaves the car after apologizing for her dad and his behavior, when she notices that she’s being filmed by the neighbor – a boy from her school who was institutionalized for “strange behavior”. She seems mad at first, but quickly switches to curiosity and relief – finally somebody notices HER and SHE gets some attention, not just the cute cheerleader.

There are not too many twists and turns in this story, which makes it easy to follow, yet you always discover something new. For example, the neighbor filming Jane late at night, who eventually becomes her boyfriend, likes to film everything and shows her a video of a plastic bag dancing in the wind. He says “sometimes, there is just so much beauty in the world that I feel like I can’t take it”. As many times as I’ve seen the movie, this is the first time that I didn’t find this line ridiculous.

The movie score plays an important role as well – the music matches each and every scene’s mood perfectly. At one point, I bought the soundtrack and never listened to it again… it’s not the same if you listen to it without the movie, but you’ll recognize it anywhere.

The last sequences bring the movie together and destroy it at the same time. As we found out in the beginning of the movie, Lester is going to die within the next year. He has evolved, changed and grown throughout the movie. He is killed by a shot to the back of his head while he sits at his kitchen table and contemplates a picture of his wife, his daughter and himself from when they were happy.

We fade out with a feeling of sadness, but completeness. Nothing else would have happened in his life – he never would have been a stock broker or travelled the world. We know this is the type of guy (if there is a type) who likes things the way they are, but needs to break out every once in a while to fix them again (hence, his smoking pot and working out in the garage, while fantasizing about a teenager cheerleader). We actually cheer for him – the viewer is on his side. He evolves during the movie and becomes someone that we’re proud of. Until he dies…but even then, we fade out, just like we faded in at the beginning of the movie and Lester says knowingly while he looks back at snapshots of his life from the other side:

“I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry – you will some day.”


(#My500Words day 3)


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