American Refugee (2021) Finds No Shelter in Tepid Sociopolitical Horror
Title: American Refugee
First Non-Festival Release: December 10, 2021 (Digital/Streaming Platforms)
Director: Ali LeRoi
Writer: Allison Buckmelter, Nicholas Buckmelter
Runtime: 94 Minutes
Starring: Derek Luke, Erika Alexander, Sam Trammell
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Greg (Derek Luke) and Helen Taylor (Erika Alexander) recently moved out to the country to get away from the big city. They live in a beautiful home with their three children. After the economy collapses, however, things sour quickly as the world becomes unsafe due to increased violence stemming from uncertainty. Eventually, the family finds themselves at the front door of their neighbors Winter (Sam Trammell) and Amber (Jessi Case). Along with their son, the couple reluctantly allow them to stay in their underground bunker in return for helping Amber deliver their baby. As the families clash and things come to a broil, a new order will be established amongst the survivors.
Anemic commentary on modern day American tensions boils over into tense family drama during an economic collapse in American Refugee.
The film starts to fall apart towards the end of act two. While it’s very clear that Winter and Greg do not mesh well; weird relationships form and dissolve amongst Winter, Greg, Helen, and Amber which don’t feel genuine or earned at all. A few barbs and digs here and there cannot make up for this jarring transition and it seems that the filmmakers do this to simply get Greg out of the bunker. There is a huge lack of tension keeping the Taylors inside the bunker. Aside from one nightly raid attempt, it’s almost like nothing is happening above ground keeping the family down there. Not feeling like the apocalypse is happening above them is a detriment to the story.
Each character is fitted with a stereotype without much depth beyond that. Winter is the zealot with an attitude, Greg is the challenger without much substance, Helen is the silent deliberator and changemaker, and Amber is the permissive yet frustrated wife. The kids have little personality either and feel included to marginally raise the stakes. Every character manages to lean into the most stereotypical dialogue possible which makes the film feel typical more than subversive. Furthermore, the cast struggles to ground their characters and convincingly pull off the situation. Difficult conversations seem silly rather than tense and outbursts arise out of nowhere.
The entire film is based on this idea that cooperation and shared leadership leads to utopia. The single rule under Winter is questioned by the family, and by extension the audience. His religious beliefs and fixation on preparing for the worst thing possible leads the Taylors into thinking he is unstable. Some of these fears are founded but it’s hard not to side with Winter partially. He did correctly predict that the economic collapse would happen and that living in the bunker would make his family safer.
It’s clear that this is what the filmmakers want the audience to see to challenge that notion by the end. The audience is vindicated that Winter does go off the deep end and that Helen emerges as the sole voice of reason. This would have more weight if Greg was not responsible for almost killing everyone via gas leak, if Amber spoke to any of the people upsetting her, and if Helen would be direct with anyone about anything which could lead to less miscommunication and frustration. Even though he does so begrudgingly at first, Winter does let his neighbors in and does attempt to embrace their presence, even warming up to them at first. There’s more fault that goes around than what is initially observable, which in a way is somewhat refreshing, if the film went with it. Overall, the metaphor is supposed to translate to otherized groups within the United States, as well as specifically immigrants seeking shelter in the context of a haven, like the bunker.
A technically fine film, American Refugee loses much of its goodwill with a befuddling story and confused handling of American sociopolitical issues. Much of this comes down to character choices that continually make the audience question what it is they are seeing. A brisk venture into the horrors of social unease, American Refugee gets more wrong than right despite a few brief moments of intense action. A few good scenes cannot save a movie from its bungled narrative, lacking performances, and failure to successfully world build. American Refugee is a victim of slapshot budget filmmaking from a studio hoping to recapture lightning in a bottle horror with a political message.
Overall Score? 4.5/10