I never saw her first step," laments the transplanted Margit (Nastassja Kinski) to her ambitious husband, Peter (Tony Goldwyn), regarding the daughter they left in Hungary during their perilous escape from the Stalin regime. That daughter, Suzanne -- wonderfully portrayed as a glowing old-country tot by Bori Keresztúri and Kelly Endrész Bánlaki and as a petulant American teen by Scarlett Johansson -- reflects writer/director Eva Gárdos' confused intercontinental youth, which inspired An American Rhapsody, a tender, assured tale of bridging the gap within oneself.
We open with the teen Suzanne gazing wistfully across rippling water, recounting the events that led her from a happy, pastoral existence outside Budapest in the mid-'50s to the disgruntled adolescence she explored in garish suburban Los Angeles 10 years later. It's a powerful story, not for excessive bathos or manipulation but because Gárdos employs a graceful, unassuming style to transform her memoirs into a universally relatable struggle. Suzanne's not the happiest camper, but with thoughtful, deliberate pacing (edited, fittingly, by Margie Goodspeed), the director gradually allows us to understand why.
Early on, the scenes in Hungary are presented in luminous black-and-white, with antiquated newsreel footage of toiling peasants and ranks of Russian soldiers neatly segueing into the world of the increasingly agitated Margit and Peter, who decide to abandon their home and wealth to escape to America. Peter has been a successful publisher, but political paranoia is increasing and hope is at a premium on the streets of Budapest. With their possessions in hand, the intrepid couple pay a coarse guide to smuggle them onto a troop-transport train, then lead them and their young daughter, Maria (Klaudia Szabó), to the barbed wire of the border.
The experience is fraught with danger, but there are no leaden Anne Frank-isms here, no sermons preached nor fingers wagged. Rather, the primary concern is that, while the family busily obtains visas in Vienna, their baby daughter, Suzanne, remains behind the Iron Curtain, kept safe from an untrustworthy courier by leery grandparents, then deposited with Jeno and Teri (Balázs Galkó and Zsuzsa Czinkóczi), a country couple who assume parental duties for the child's first five years. At that age, the girl's foster family is abruptly shattered, and -- roughly in parallel with the Beatles -- she hits the tarmac in America, joining her true parents, who seem to her like peculiarly friendly strangers.
None of this is new, of course. Especially in this country, we've got tales of sighing immigrants up the wazoo, and virtually every movie is about someone escaping from somewhere to go somewhere else. However, An American Rhapsody distinguishes itself by its subtlety and good taste. Whether we catch a hint of gypsy music on the soundtrack (by Márta Sebestyén and Ando Drom), or glimpse a disturbing American neighbor lady (Lorna Scott) trussed up in curlers and polyester, Gárdos steadfastly guards us from caricature. She wants to keep it real.
Oddly, this very tack is also the source of the film's occasional squishiness. If the story wants for something, it is surely emotional complexity; Gárdos has painted these portraits with strokes a bit too broad. Her sincerity in this regard is easily appreciated, but with the kid gloves on, she can't give the characters' worldviews full service: Jeno, for instance, is simply a nice Hungarian man, seemingly incapable of spitting; Americanized Maria (Mae Whitman at 10, Larisa Oleynik at 18) is simply a bratty older sister, and so on. Gardos does not lessen her story's impact with niceness per se, but a few more subjective quirks might have reeled us in closer. The director has overgeneralized that "all of us try to forget the painful memories of our childhood," perhaps not realizing that this story is the very stage on which those feet should stomp and those tears should flow.
Although there is a slightly muted effect from this directorial restraint, the performers give us their full intensity. Johansson (who attends Thora Birch through Ghost World) is a natural, eschewing cheap histrionics in favor of a low ache we can feel when she's standing still. When she releases her rage -- as in the disturbing sequence where Margit locks her in her room "to keep her safe" -- no one who's ever been misunderstood will doubt her credibility.
Kinski has matured into a perfect balance for the radical gestures of girlhood. She's as lovely as she was in Tess more than two decades ago, and ever a heartache to behold, but one can now detect traces of her famous father in her features, with something still smoldering beyond convenient definition. As Margit, she's the line connecting this story, frantic in Budapest, incredulous in Vienna, devastated and rebuilding her world amid the hamburgers and fireworks of American ritual. Where Johansson gives us insight into the value of heated instinct over cold reason, Kinski provides the key to why so many parents refuse to trust or believe in this alleged land of the free.
Apart from good old American discipline, Gárdos has much to reveal from her memory book. Old World, New World -- these are clichés, but here we feel a tangible sense of quasi-religious devotion in a well-worn scythe versus a brand-new chrome bumper and, likewise, gently strummed strings competing with Elvis' "All Shook Up." In this context, even bananas take on unexpected richness of meaning. When Suzanne reunites with her family, the glimmers in their eyes cross borders and eclipse language. The movie is subtle, but it should speak volumes to anyone who's ever carried a severed soul.