When fascism was on the rise in ’30s Europe, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel about a dystopian, dictatorial America, sarcastically titled It Can’t Happen Here.
In American Insurrection, it already has.
That title, a new one, is misleading, although commercial. (The movie was originally called The Volunteers.) Before the film even begins, an election has already happened, and a right-wing racist is currently president.
Keeping him there? An organized army of local militias who roam the country, looking for anyone who isn’t white, straight and Christian. If they’re caught, they’re tattooed with a bar-code and shipped off to a camp. If they run, they’re killed.
So, to be honest, the film really should be called American Resistance. Because its focus is a small cell of “undesirables” – some of them bisexual, Muslim, or Filipino – who aren’t trying to overthrow the government, but run a new underground railroad to Canada.
Until they’re finally forced to head for the border themselves.
Directed by William Sullivan, who co-wrote the script with Jarrett Kerr (who also costars as one of the resisters) it’s a film that’s both artistically ambition and smartly economical. The major parts are filled by half-a-dozen actors. Most of the film takes place in a farmhouse and its adjoining barn. Flashbacks are few, and compact.
Yet the film doesn’t shy away from big issues, both political and personal. And it doesn’t provide easy answers, or offer anyone a cost-free escape.
It’s terrifically well-acted, too, featuring a pair of great female roles. Nadine Malou is complex and compassionate as an American Muslim who lost her family to a racist extremist bombing, yet still struggles to understand how hate begins. Sarah Wharton is Sarah, the cell’s leader, a punkish warrior in combat boots ready to die if it ensures others’ survival.
Sometimes the film’s determination to deepen its characters slows things down. The sexual relationships between our resistance fighters can get overly complicated (there are a lot of secrets being kept, apparently). And a few more backstory details – like the initial tragedy that motivates Sarah – remain vaguer than they need to be.
But this is still a passionately performed, engrossing drama, that beautifully contrasts the gorgeous national landscape with the ugliness of some of its residents. And painfully reminds every American to be on their guard against creeping extremism, no matter who it looks like or what flag it waves.
It can’t happen here? Don’t bet on it.