An adroit Canadian film comes to video

My American Cousin Feature film (PG). Written and directed by Sandy Wilson. Media Home Entertainment. $79.95 ``He's so - uh - American,'' says Sandra's mother.

She's talking about Butch, a 17-year-old from California who has wheeled fatefully into their quiet corner of British Columbia in his blazing red El Dorado.

His blond and dazzling presence is a dash of longed-for spice in 12-year-old Sandra's life, where ``nothing ever happens,'' according to her despairing diary. It is also the focus of an adroit and nostalgically charming Canadian film - laid in the '50s - that plays wryly with US-Canadian attitudes and looks with touching fondness at a young girl's growing up.

The semi-autobiographical story - Ms. Wilson's first feature film - was a theatrical hit in Canada and swept the Genie awards (Canada's Oscars) last year. Now it makes an especially worthwhile home video arrival, with quiet humor and deceptively simple wisdom tucked into the lines. Sandra's life in her family's lakeside home not only captures the sound and feel of the '50s; for American viewers it provides an unusual setting - the cloistered world of small-town Canada - in a tone that is understanding but not patronizing.

In this bucolic atmosphere - where a hint of formality flavors even family relations and adult authority is still something to be taken into account - Butch arrives like a visitor from another planet. ``We've got this American cousin staying with us,'' Sandra says breathlessly on the phone to a friend. ``... California ... Honest!''

From this faintly illicit figure, Sandra and her girlfriends learn that ``Anything you want, we got in the USA,'' that America is a place where ``We have rock all day long'' and where all the roads are paved - unlike the dusty byways on which Butch takes Sandra and her squealing friends for a wild ride.

The girls are almost aggressively innocent and corny, and even Butch's waywardness seems mild today. He may be an operator with the girls, but he usually gulps ``yessirs'' in addressing grownups and agrees to work picking cherries for Sandra's father.

Gentle and universal in its humor and insights, distinctly Canadian in its cultural perspective, this story has a relatively slow pace that lets you view characters reflectively - and perhaps a bit wistfully. It also lets you appreciate the film's unpretentious metaphors, linking unspoiled scenery with unjaded attitudes and making Butch a symbol both of American culture and of Sandra's youthful longing.

Alan Bunce reviews home video for the Monitor.

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