American Movie (1999)

american movie poster 1999 documentary
9.0 Overall Score

Oddly inspiring


Movie Info

Movie Name:  American Movie

Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics

Genre(s):  Documentary

Release Date(s):  November 5, 1999

MPAA Rating:  R


Mark is a passionate trainwreck

Mark Borchardt has a dream.  He wants to make the great American movie in his personal story called Northwestern which draws from his life in Wisconsin.  Mark has problems including finances and decides that finish Northwestern, he must first finish his horror short Coven.  With his friends Mike Shank and Ken Keen, his girlfriend Joan Petrie, and his uncle Bill, Mark is going to make his dreams come true…if he doesn’t sabotage himself.

Directed by Chris Smith, American Movie is a documentary film following a fledgling filmmaker named Mark Borchardt as he tries to make his first film after years of failures.  The movie was critically acclaimed and wonder the Grand Jury—Documentary at Sundance Film Festival.

American Movie has developed a cult status over the years and it is deservingly so.  I’ve seen it multiple times and the filmmakers go to great lengths to make the viewers feel they know the people involved.  It is a very watchable movie.


“It’s all right, it’s ok, Jesus told me so!”

Borchardt is a bit of a trainwreck.  He’s young and put himself so far in debt that the arrival of a new credit card means he can appease the phone company enough to buy more things for his movie.  The tunnel vision of the character is so great that the shock of learning that he is the father of three children about halfway through this film makes it a bit more tragic since at this point he might put his kids and their future before himself.  Despite the world being somewhat against him and his dream, Borchardt does show fortitude by chasing his dream.

One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is Mark’s Uncle Bill (“It’s ok, it’s alright, you have something to live for…Jesus told me so”).  One of the things mentioned in the commentary is that Mark felt it appeared that he used his uncle for his money.  This might appear so on the surface, but it is also notable that he and his friends are the ones who are there with his uncle on holidays and who take care of him…it actually seems a bit touching.  It makes it even sadder with the footnote that Uncle Bill died shortly after the movie’s completion.


The most animated that Mike Schank gets

The surprising thing is despite how the movie portrayed Coven, Coven isn’t that bad.  It is by no means a “great” film, but Borchardt shows skill with the camera, framing, and atmosphere.  While this film is played for laughs, the “characters” are real people with real lives and abilities.  That would be one drawback of the film, it isn’t very fair to Borchardt and those around him at points.  It could be argued that life itself is funny and American Movie seeks to capture that humor by following Mark who obviously sometimes can laugh at his struggles.

As a person who dreams of films and a person who has never made one, I have to admire Mark Borchardt.  Regardless what you think of Coven, he completed a film that aired in a theater…something that not everyone can claim.  It has been interesting to see what has happened to both Borchardt and Shank since this film and they sometimes pop up both as themselves and as actors since the release of American Movie.  I wouldn’t even mind a return to American Movie and see how their lives have changed (or remained the same) since the film was released.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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