Celebrating 30 years of My American Cousin

Naramata director Sandy Wilson talks about the film My American Cousin made in the Okanagan.

John Wildman

John Wildman

It was September 1984 and Sandy Wilson created a film that set the tone for many after, the telling of a coming-of-age story.

“I can’t believe it has been 30 years,” said Wilson in a phone interview with the Western News. “It is pretty amazing. I thought the film turned out though way better than I expected. It feels homemade documentary-style and that is what is fabulous about the film.”

The movie, My American Cousin, follows 12-year-old Sandy who lives with her parents and sisters on a Canadian ranch. Naramata and Penticton provided the backdrop. One night her cousin Butch arrives from the U.S. in a big fancy car for a surprise visit. Sandy, who has dreams of adventure away from her small town, would love nothing more than to leave with him. The film is filled with references from the 50s and pokes fun at the differences between Canadians and Americans.

My American Cousin went on to win a Genie Award, but it is the reaction the Naramata director gets from those who have seen it that is the most rewarding.

“As Canadians we are so used to making jokes and laughing at ourselves. And we had a few Americans with sour grapes telling me they aren’t really like that,” said Wilson.

The director recalls a screening in New York where a woman in the front row was particularly disgruntled about the jabs towards American life, but reactions from screenings in Russia and Australia proved the director accomplished what she set out to do.

“This one big Russian guy came up to me at the end and he said ‘In Russia, it is the same with the mothers and their daughter.’ I was thrilled,” said Wilson, who added the sound was turned down when it was screened and one person read all the parts from a Russian script.

In Australia and Cuba, people also seemed in tune with where she led them in My American Cousin.

“I enjoy seeing that kind of thing, when people notice we are all the same on some levels,” said Wilson. “That kind of thing fills my heart with joy. That is what I get a bang out of: telling a story that really becomes everybody’s story.”

While the film went on to be a huge stepping point for Wilson, who admits to signing up for film classes at Simon Fraser University because she heard there were “cute boys” in the class, she also broke ground as a female director. She recalls greeting some of the crew as they arrived in Penticton and seeing strange reactions as they realized the director was a woman.

Wilson said the film is about 78 per cent factual, with her embellishing and borrowing some of the storyline from things that happened to her childhood friends. So when the opportunity arose to trade $500 to the lab person, who was in need of new tires for his truck, making the original print to get her own, she jumped.

“Now this is completely illegal, the filmmaker is not supposed to get it but 30 years later I don’t know who is going to come after me,” she said with a laugh.

The print sat on her shelf for years, made its way to France for a screening and then in a closet at Capilano College.

“I bought a 35-millimetre copy off of Ebay because my original film cans went missing. I had left them at the college by mistake and they were put in a closet and forgotten for about 10 to 15 years,” said Wilson. “Now it’s a bedside table. I have two of them. Great, huge, heavy, clanking things and you throw a tablecloth on top and there you go. They were just the right size.”

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of My American Cousin, a special viewing of the film will be held at the Shatford Centre on Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. This is a benefit screening for the Shatford Community Learning Kitchen. Director Wilson will be in attendance as well as the star Maggie Langrick and other cast and crew.

Doors open at 1:30 p.m. and tickets are $10 available at eventbrite.com, the Shatford Centre, by phone at 250-770-7668 or at the door. The film will also be playing during the sold-out Naramata Bench Wineries Association tailgate party on Sept. 13.