The tagline for Mendes' American Beauty (1999) reads '...look closer' - and that closer look is at the trappings of traditional expectations in a too-perfect American suburb. White picket fences, perfectly pruned gardens and polite chat with the neighbours - it looks like the families here have it all, including the Burnham family - Lester (Kevin Spacey), his wife Carolyn (Annete Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). But Lester's marriage is unfulfilling and fraught, and his relationship with awkward adolescent daughter Jane is rocky at best. However, after a cheerleading performance at a football game, he develops a perverted fascination with Jane's best friend Angela (Mena Suvari), represented in a somewhat surreal manner, with sequences showing a recurring motif of red rose petals - coming from her open jacket, and a night time fantasy of her bathing naked in them as they fall onto his pillow. He also starts to smoke marijuana with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), son of new neighbour Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), an uptight ex-military man.
Meanwhile, Jane faces her own developing relationship with Ricky, who she initially brands a pervert after she sees him filming her, but gives a second chance. As they grow closer, their relationship grows darker, with a clear bond coming from their outsider status to the superficial world around them. Both actors give stunning performances, with intensity and teenage angst that hits the spot perfectly. And Wes Bentley is nice to look at (despite his character being a little on the wrong side of creepy), which is always a bonus.
The story is narrated by Lester in a depressingly frank, self-deprecating way (wanking in the shower being the 'high point' of his day). Bleak humour and dark comedy intersperse the constantly intensifying storyline, from Jim and his lover, Jim, and Frank Fitts' confused reaction when they drop round a welcome basket to Lester's amusing attempts to relive his youth in the midst of a mid-life crisis. The visuals are often striking too - the recurring motif of red is, if slightly cliched, atmospheric, closely linked to feelings of passion...and danger.
Spacey gives a subtle, layered performance as Lester, and does a great job of showing a middle-class man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, as he learns about himself and those around him. Bening's Carolyn is wonderfully all-American, with her determination to sell her latest house using her excessive pep and never-fading permagrin, but we see this begin to fall apart as she embarks on an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). And I've always been a big Thora Birch fan, and as the perfect dark, disturbed teenager she doesn't disappoint. The film has an excellent ensemble cast, all demonstrating the slow disintegration of the 'American Dream' - and exactly what effect it has on their mental states.
I could go into a Film Studies-style analysis here, but as it's a review I'll keep it short and sweet (and I feel like it's a film you need to see and work out your own personal interpretations of). American Beauty has various complex readings, about sex, freedom and the mental state of its characters. A story of rebellion, it takes a satirical look at American suburbia- where things may seem idyllic on the surface, but under the shallow depths of the perfectly manicured lawns, secrets and unspoken desires create a dark undercurrent.