It’s been fifteen years since the cinematic release of American Beauty, Sam Mendes‘ masterful portrait of suburban life, but it would be an uphill battle to find a current film which exhibits the same level of directorial quality or depth of character.
The film manages to address several key aspects of contemporary American life with great style and focus. Life, death, homophobia, materialism and teenage angst are all strung together to produce a coherent and evocative piece of cinema.
Lester Burnham, played with consummate finesse by an Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey, is a 42-year-old magazine writer who simply hates his life. He hates that his cosy suburban neighbourhood and materially-obsessive wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning), have sucked all the joy out of his life, which makes him feel “already dead.”
However, Lester finds himself escaping this life “which so closely resembles hell” when he develops a deep physical attraction to his daughter’s friend, Angela, a process he describes as “like being in a coma for twenty years and now just beginning to wake up.”
Lester’s attraction with Angela, who is a High School cheerleader, is the most startling and provocative aspect of the film. Lester has essentially never grown up after college as he met Carolyn and started living the typical life of the ‘American Dream’ but it is his obsession with Angela which makes him feel young again. Mendes uses dream sequences, all shot with visual panache, to portray Lester’s fantasies of Angela and are weaved into the story to track Lester’s path to escaping from his mid-life crisis.
The main reason American Beauty’s plot progresses so seamlessly is the expertly written characters, all very different people on the surface, but all suffering from the same misery and feeling of repression. Lester is miserable because of his wife and job, just like his daughter is miserable because she is not popular and beautiful like Angela. In addition, Ricky Fitts, Lester’s next-door neighbour, is miserable because of his troubled past and his homophobic, abusive father who literally tries to beat “structure and discipline” into him.
The collective loneliness and depression of the characters represent the dark, cynical vision of suburban culture and their path to achieving true American happiness. Mendes’ film shows a type of suburban prison which suffocates the characters and it’s not until they free themselves from the shackles of their imprisonment that they discover the true beauty of American life.