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Rockhill’s ‘American’ indie success

by AL TOPICH Special to the Democrat-Gazette | March 24, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Sky pilot: Finn (Hart Denton) relaxes in the middle of the literal road, in a scene from “American Cherry,” the latest release from Arkansas-based Rockhill Studios.

"Vonnegut wrote 'we are what we pretend to be. So we must be careful about what we pretend to be'," is the opening line from the film "American Cherry," spoken in a raw, hushed, trembling voice-over by its main character, Finn Elliott. Finn is played by Hart Denton, probably best known as playing one of the major antagonists in the CW's long running show "Riverdale." Finn is a peculiar teenager; he has a strained relationship with his parents, and aggressive antisocial tendencies tied into an undefined mental disorder. When he finally finds a person that he can love, he has difficulties keeping the happier side of his brain turned on as his darker personality slowly fights its way back to the surface.

"American Cherry" is the latest feature film co-produced by the Arkansas-based company, Rockhill Studios. The film was partially shot in the Fayetteville area, and is now available to rent and stream on several different platforms.

It's great seeing Rockhill becoming such a sought after production company. Between this film, "Freedom's Path," "House of Darkness," "The Quarry" and the forthcoming "What Happens Later," Rockhill is quickly building up an impressive slate of movies. Plus, it's always nice seeing a slew of Arkansas filmmakers in the credits, several I know personally or have worked with in the past, like Victoria Fox, William Duran and Gerald Chase Wilson. All of whom are some of the hardest working filmmakers in the state.

"American Cherry" is relatively plotless; it plays out like a southern romantic thriller. We first meet Finn as he's coming home from school. He appears to be an energetic ball of pent-up anger and frustration. He slings his backpack to the ground in a rage and cusses up a storm as he searches for something to hit. One day, while lying in the middle of a highway -- filming the sky and contemplating suicide -- he is discovered by young Eliza, played by Sarah May Sommers. Both Finn and Eliza have complicated relationships with their parents and their classmates. Finn enjoys picking fights, even threatening a teacher causing him to get expelled, while Eliza likes to ride the town bus, pretending that it's a Greyhound taking her someplace far away.

The movie is in the same tradition of other toxic romantic thrillers. It's got a touch of Terrance Malick's "Badlands" (1973), in the sense that both films have a self-destructive teenage boy and a seemingly impressionable teenage girl surrounded by dysfunction, who fall for each other in the rural, low income suburbs of the South. It even has a Malick-esque dreamlike voice-over that hauntingly echoes over the entire film. I also detected a pinch of "Heathers" (1988) in it as well -- part of the film focuses on Eliza's group of friends, which includes her half sister, Corinna (Audrey Holcomb), who also shares a contentious relationship with Eliza. At first, this group of girl friends feels like your stereotypical "mean girls," but the more time we spend with them we see past their public facades and see that they are almost equally as depressed and self destructive as Finn and Eliza.

The main themes of the movie seem to focus on mental health, specifically untreated mental health, but it also revolves around generational trauma through flashbacks of Eliza and Finn's childhoods. Eliza's mother is a chronic alcoholic, who is verbally abusive and blames her daughter for her failed marriage; Eliza explains to Finn that her mother's brain doesn't produce enough dopamine, so she can't help the drinking and psychological abuse. As Finn witnesses the dysfunction surrounding Eliza's stressful life, he starts getting these dark thoughts of how he can "fix" things for her--all in the name of love, of course. As the film inches closer and closer to its third act, the audience can sense that something ominous and dark is about to occur.

The film is the directorial debut of Marcella Cytrynowicz, who is more known for her work on television commercials and music videos, working with brands like Nike and musical artists like Snoop Dog. She focuses her camera in a dreamlike, almost voyeuristic way as she captures these characters in their most intimate and personal spaces. At times the movie does feel like it's paced more like a music video, where there's not a strict linear structure and every frame is more concerned with visual imagery as opposed to progressing the story forward.

There were only two things that bothered me about the film. One was the casting. Most of the roles were cast very well. Hart Denton, with his sunken eyes and his bleached blond hair, makes for the perfect disturbed teenager, and Sarah May Sommers gives a subdued and poignant performance as the emotionally broken Eliza.

But two roles stick out as being miscast, though: Matty Cardarople ("Stranger Things," "Reservation Dogs") plays Finn's father, and John Honey, Eliza's estranged stepfather. There's nothing wrong with Cardarople's performance, he just has one of those faces that, even though he's in his late 30s, he looks like a teenager himself. Honey gives a rather noticeable wooden performance, but then again, his character is a tad underwritten, not giving him much to work with.

Speaking of underwritten characters, Eliza's drunkard of a mother is also underwritten, which is my second biggest complaint about the movie. She comes off as being an outright antagonist whose only function is to give the audience someone to root against. It's sad that her character feels so two dimensional, considering that most of the other supporting characters feel a bit more fleshed out.

Overall "American Cherry" is another success for Rockhill Studios, and a good start to Cytrynowicz feature film career. The movie is now available to rent from Amazon and Vudu.

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