American Beauty (1999)

Sam Mendes

Gratitude

Written by Alan Ball. Starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Benning, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, and Chris Cooper. 122 mins. Rated R (graphic language and sexual situations).

In the film, American Beauty, though most of the focus is on Kevin Spacey’s Lester, we also meet Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the weird boy next door and perhaps the strangest “presence,” bar none, in recent American film. And he is indeed a presence, who is both peculiar and fully wonder-full. Initially, he’s just eerie, silent and hovering, and always with his video camera, and he films just about everything, including dead birds, people, and bags blowing in the wind. Stalker perhaps–or saint, even though he enjoys and peddles a bit of pot? The son of a quietly tyrannical retired (sort of) Marine Colonel (Chris Cooper). Moreover, Ricky is behind his class in high school due to a period of “Institutionalization,” the not-so-kind word now used for those whose mental health plummeted, though usually for reasons quiet beyond themselves. Lord, have mercy. Now, though, strange as he is, Ricky connects with the high school girl next door, a plain Jane, quite literally (Thora Birch), Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), who resides restless and resentful with her banal and self-involved parents (picket fence-and-roses variety).

All around, and through and through, family life in American Beauty is very much a conflictual stew, and strangely, it is only strange Ricky who has any idea of what counts, of what finally is the really right and Real. And that, put in simple traditional terms, is transcendent beauty found in the ordinary, including people: indeed, if we have but eyes, or a camera, to see. Rickie finally displays for the girl next door “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed”—improbably, neither Niagara nor Everest, but a small white plastic supermarket bag tossing in the wind before a red brick wall (1:01:55-1:04:12). And it is enough for rapture, as well it should be in a “right and fitting” posture of profoundest gratitude for the simple fact of being alive. Somehow the bag in the wind, “just dancing with me, like a little kid begging me to play with it,” brought Ricky to realize “that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredible benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason be afraid. Ever.” Indeed, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it…and my heart is going to cave in.” Here we witness another’s witness to the deepest gifts of being alive. Amen, alleluia, and so it should be—always. That’s the deep-down truth of all things, the mystery of Being, the shining in the foil (G. M. Hopkins) of and in God, though adults, including those who “know” Jesus through and through, or so they say, never ever glimpse. In the beauty of Beauty, or the lilies (One and the same), Christ was born, and they neither toil nor spin. Thank God the Maker, and thank Ricky (and screenwriter Alan Ball). For such revel is that for which God made the world in the first and last places.

written by Roy Anker

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