Dir. Sam Mendes. USA. 1999.

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The first thing we find out about Lester Burnham is that he will die in less than a year.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) lives in the suburbia we know from 'Desperate Housewives', and 'Edward Scissorhands', picture perfect, with a lot going on underneath. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), a realtor, hates him. His daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), hates him. He starts to fantasise about Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), which makes Jane hate him even more.
He's also got some pretty strange new neighbours; Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), a severely homophobic ex -Marine, his wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) who is strangely vacant and their son, Ricky (Wes Bentley), who films Jane obsessively, often without her knowledge.

As the films progresses and Lester goes about his rebellion from his boring job and his family who can't stand him, you get so caught up in the burgeoning relationships between Jane and Ricky, and Carolyn’s affair with fellow realtor Buddy Kane, it's easy to forget the opening; that time for Lester is running out. However, when Lester's wry voiceover announces that this is the day that he dies, the narrative switches from comedic/dramatic to purely thrilling. There are at least 3 people with motives to kill Lester, so who will actually do the deed?

American Beauty is staggering in its achievements - to be this funny and this exciting, intimate and romantic, and so utterly affecting. It's one of those occasions where the script, the director and the actors just marry perfectly.

Kevin Spacey knocks it out of the park, he takes Lester so believably through his transition from beaten down to fighting back, and his last hours of real warmth and tenderness just makes his ultimate fate so tragic. He is not perfect, not be any means, but he goes on such a journey in a few months and you're there with him when he redeems himself, with a final act of kindness. This is one of the most beautiful character arcs in cinema, and the writer, Alan Ball, on his first cinematic screenplay, deserves major credit.

All of the other actors are brilliant, there is no one who lets the side down or underperforms. After Kevin Spacey, Thora Birch has the most screen time and she is wonderful, conveying the isolation most teenagers go through, as well as the fear and excitement of first love. Mena Suvari, in another impressive arc, goes from strutting peacock to delicate sparrow, and it's so convincing and beautiful to watch.

One of the main reasons American Beauty is so good is how varied and real the characters are; there are few people who won't relate to Lester's frustration with the banality of his work, Carolyn's disappointment with her life and her marriage, Jane's general worries, Angela's desperate desire not to be ordinary. It taps into not just America's psyche, but everyone’s. It's an intensely personal viewing experience, one that you really shouldn't miss.

Chloe Walker

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