By Lisa Schwarzbaum
November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

If Mark Borchardt of Menomonee Falls, Wis., weren’t obsessed with filmmaking, he might have become obsessed with computer programming or ice fishing. These pastimes count as passions, but they’re not groovy; being an indie auteur is groovy. And a tacit auteur-to-auteur endorsement of the inalienable right to make movies — regardless of talent or sobriety or adult responsibilities — is what gives American Movie its uneasy kick. Chris Smith’s deadpan documentary — which, with exquisite topical inevitability, won the grand jury prize at Sundance this year — follows Borchardt, a skinny, bespectacled, unworldly 32-year-old father of three with Wayne’s World hair and the odd-job resume of a 22-year-old slacker, on his roundabout quest to make a movie he calls Northwestern.

Like most every movie the self-taught Borchardt has made since he was 14, this one is highly influenced by the blood-and-gore aesthetics of George Romero, achieved with an American primitivist practicality legitimized by Ed Wood. But with Northwestern stalled due to money problems, absence of a usable script, and across-the-board screwups, Borchardt — regarded by his parents and two brothers as, well, you know, different — tackles financing on two fronts: He’ll complete his horror flick Coven, move 3,000 units on home video, and invest the profits; and he’ll hit up his tightfisted 82-year-old uncle Bill for a loan in exchange for an executive producer credit.

Smith and his producer-sound recordist Sarah Price will swear that their documentary is warmly admiring of their hero’s struggle. And indeed, Borchardt pursues his goals with unironic dignity, most touchingly in his relationship with his uncle, whom he affectionately teases as a vital human being, not just a fragile trailer-park geezer to be humored. But the two also document Borchardt’s antic lifestyle with a poker-faced dispassion that doesn’t protect the guy from himself. And in their fascination with Borchardt’s sidekick, Mike Schank, an expressive musician but a shy, monosyllabic interview subject, Smith and Price leave Schank open to audience giggles; they turn real, naive, unpolished people into colorful movie Characters enacting a scenario.

In this case, the amusing, Gen-X-noble drama is about a director dude who is thousands of dollars in debt but who feels he must make his indie blood-fest. That Borchardt is actually a vulnerable and unhappy young man of uncertain talent may be dismaying, but dig this: He now keeps a diary about his new high profile on the American Movie website! Is this the Sundance dream or what?! B — LS

American Movie
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R
104 Minutes

  • Movie
  • R
  • 107 minutes
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