Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Finding Amanda" is worth discovering

A truly great performance is marked by the audience's inability to imagine any other performer being as good in the role. In Finding Amanda, Brittany Snow gives such a performance.

Snow is a charming and talented actress who after becoming a household name in 2002 with her role in the TV show American Dreams, has been the highlight of both comedies and dramas. Snow’s signature acting trait is to bring an irresistible sweetness to all her roles, whether it’s in the teen comedy John Tucker Must Die or the unsavory sex-industry exploration On the Doll. She has the type of innocent look the phrase “button cute” was created for, and could easily have a successful career hopping from one safe romantic comedy to another. Instead, she has proven herself to be one of Hollywood’s most daring risk-takers. On the Doll’s dark material made the film a very hard sell. Snow’s 2009 film Black Water Transit, by controversial director Tony Kaye is still awaiting distribution. Another of her films, 96 Minutes, played at festivals, but hasn’t been widely released.

In 2009, Snow starred in one of the year’s best films, The Vicious Kind. The movie is a caustic and unflinching examination of the burgeoning romance between Snow’s character, Emma Gainsborough, and her college boyfriend as well as the boyfriend’s older brother, whose misogyny stemming from the demise of his own relationship threatens to derail them.

Finding Amanda is another risky role and because of this is a little-seen movie. This is a shame since it’s a thoughtful and touching study of two troubled people at different stages of their lives.

Matthew Broderick stars as a recovering alcoholic and addict who is lying to his wife about his ongoing gambling habit. When he hears his 20-year-old niece Amanda is working in Las Vegas as a hooker with a drug problem, he drives there to find her and get her into a rehab facility. It soon becomes clear his motivation for heading to Vegas may have less to do with Amanda and more to do with betting on horse races. No sooner has he checked into his hotel than he heads to the casino for some betting money. He eventually takes a break from gambling and finds Amanda at a casino where she is picking up customers near the elevators.

Finding Amanda easily could have been a bland hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story, but the screenplay by writer/director Peter Tolan eschews clich├ęs and instead charts new and deep waters.

In one of the film’s more moving and poignant scenes, Amanda confides in her uncle about her start in the business and why she continues to sell herself. While recounting her first experience with a client, she reveals her vulnerability for one of the few times in the film. Throughout much of the movie, Amanda puts on a front and seems to be content with her life. She explains her job away by saying a lot of people have jobs they don’t like and she views her profession as another line of work. Describing the incident, she reveals it is so life-changing that to stop wouldn’t be able to erase the event, so why not just continue?

A story of a young prostitute could be a dark film, but Finding Amanda manages to be both a comedy and a drama convincingly. While it is set in Las Vegas, there are few familiar, exciting overhead shots of the Strip, no scenes in front of Caesars Palace and no trip to the Eiffel tower at Paris. Instead, the audience sees the inside of nondescript casinos. By doing this, the film removes the excitement and allure the tourists see and focuses instead on the less glamorous and dark side of Las Vegas. Amanda is all too familiar with the unsavory side of Sin City and in one sequence her uncle accompanies her on a nighttime excursion during which she purchases drugs while visiting sketchy off-Strip areas.

Yet in between these dark patches there are scenes of charm and humor. Steve Coogan is great as a pit boss who is familiar with Broderick’s character. The two share a few amusing scenes together. Peter Facinelli has some great moments as Amanda’s tool boyfriend and Snow’s performance is at times equal measure adorable and heartbreaking.

Finding Amanda may not have found an audience while in theaters, but it deserves to be watched on DVD and cable. It is an insightful and thoughtful character stury which avoids cliches and takes its own path.