Dir: Eva Gardos. US. 2001. 106 mins.

An ode to America as the land of freedom and opportunity, Eva Gardos' An American Rhapsody relates a heartfelt coming-of-age story, centring on a bright Hungarian-American adolescent (magnificently embodied by Manny & Lo discovery Scarlett Johansson), who insists on determining her own fate against both familial and political odds. Although based on the personal experience of Gardos, who here makes a decent (but not much more) feature directorial debut, the screenplay is disappointingly flat, lacking deep insights into the inner psyche and soul of a girl torn between two sets of parents, biological versus sociological, and two disparate value systems, West versus East. Nonetheless, if the recent reception at the Nantucket Film Festival - where An American Rhapsody won the Audience Award - is any indication, this Paramount Classics release should find appreciative viewers on the US arthouse circuit after the film's European premiere as opening night presentation at this year's Karlovy Vary Festival.

The narrative-memoir begins with a young woman's voiceover, informing the audience: "In the summer of 1965, I was 15, and my life was already falling apart, so I went back to Hungary." Her tale then goes back to Hungary in the Cold War era, depicting a couple, Peter and Margaret (Goldwyn and Kinski), making preparations for crossing the border to Vienna, and from there to the US. Due to tragic, uncontrollable circumstances - a series of unscrupulous officers and profiteers - their baby girl Suzanne is left behind, along with her grandmother, who is sent to jail when she refuses to co-operate with the authorities.

Realising the error, the hysterical Margaret wants to go back, but Peter, who all his life has dreamed about living in a free country where he can establish his own publishing company, promises that the family will reunite in no time. Unfortunately, no time turns out to be many long and painful years.

The main yarn switches back and forth between the new American locale, where the Hungarian emigres try to assimilate in the midst of strong anti-Communist feelings, and Hungary, where Suzanne is brought up by her loving adoptive parents, who dread the consequences of losing their only daughter. Given a new identity, Suzanne is raised happily in a remote, rustic countryside, totally unaware of her biological family.

The heartbroken Margaret doesn't give up and after corresponding with top-rank politicians, she manages to get Suzanne back via the Red Cross's operations. Uprooted, Suzanne turns out to be an outsider par excellence: a rebellious teenager who smokes, goes out on dates, and, most important of all, simply can't bring herself to utter the word "mom" to her biological parent. Ultimately, Suzanne realises that, to figure out where she really belongs and who she really is, she must make her own daring escape from America back to Hungary.

American Rhapsody captures well both its American and East European locales: life behind the Iron Curtain is without TV sets, Elvis Presley and Beatles music, and any sense that the world is rapidly changing. In sharp contrast, the new family immediately adopts the American way of life in a sun-drenched California, dominated by consumerism of modern appliances, and clear sexual segregation: men are at work, women in the kitchen. Indeed, tensions within the nuclear family escalate when it becomes clear that it is Margaret's sole responsibility to raise and educate her daughters; physical child abuse by the mother is suggested, but not dwelled upon.

Gardos has served as apprentice to such film-makers as Francis Ford Coppola and Hal Ashby, and worked on the editing of Barbet Schroeder's Barfly and Peter Bogdanovich's Mask. But as a novice writer, her script leaves a lot to be desired. Gardos is not entirely successful in showing how Suzanne finally accomplishes the nearly impossible task of bringing the two disparate worlds together. She also neglects the perspective of the older sister, who has always lived in the shadow of a problematic, though clearly favourite, daughter. Marital and other familial strains are only touched upon briefly. Overall, the film assumes the shape of a none-too-deep family album, a catalogue of political events and turning points, lacking the epic and poetic dimensions promised in the first sequences.

While the entire ensemble is credible and appealing, it's Johansson's superlative turn that holds the picture together, allowing the camera to pierce within the soul of a girl, faced with a traumatic experience but determined to emerge emotionally intact. Her spontaneous, at times even dangerous, performance goes way beyond a calculated script that's overly concerned with plot at the expense of sharper psychological observations.

Prod co: Paramount Classics
US dist: Paramount Classics
Int'l dist: Fireworks Pictures
Prods: Peter M. Hoffman, Colleen Camp, Bonnie Timmermann, Andrew Vajna
Scr: Eva Gardos
Cinematography: Elemer Ragalyi
Ed: Margie Goodspend
Music: Cliff Eidelman
Main cast: Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Goldwyn, Lisa Jane Persky, Vladimir Mashkov, Emmy Rossum, Larisa Oleynik