Wisconsin in the mid-nineteen-nineties: aspiring film maker Mark Borchardt has been making short amateur films ever since he got his first camera as a boy. Having just finished a radio play, he decides he should be throwing himself into making his feature film debut, Northwestern, and begins to set up the production, assembling cast and crew. However, he's always short of money, and as the bills pile up, he opts to finish a black and white, short, horror film called Coven which he started a few years before, not counting on the fact that this will take just as much work as shooting Northwestern.
Chris Smith and Sarah Price's documentary charts the ups and downs of low budget film making in a manner that doesn't shy away from the obvious deficiencies in the production, because this is not just low budget film making, this is practically non-existent budget film making, a long way from Hollywood. With a lot of help from his friends and family, Mark follows his dream to make it as a success in his chosen field. His right hand man is Mike Schank, a dazed ex-drug addict who is always happy to assist, and what money there is being grudgingly provided by Mark's elderly uncle, Bill Borchardt.
Usually with films charting the progress of one man's American dream, you're optimistic that perseverance will pay off, but with American Movie, you grow more and more sceptical. The only evidence we see of Mark's talent is in his earlier home movies, such as his The More the Scarier series, or in the self-explanatory I Blow Up, which doesn't supply much hope for Coven. Never mind that the title is pronounced "Coe-ven" because "Coven sounds like 'Oven'", Mark may have watched a ton of movies and read just as many books, but can he cut it as anything other than an amateur?
Time and time again, Mark is let down by his cohorts. At first, you're laughing at the inadequacies of his efforts, but as more of the background to his life is revealed, you begin to feel guilty at looking down on the would-be director. Mark left school early, tried joining the army but that didn't work out, and now has to support three children who he had with his ex-girlfriend, all on the pay from his job delivering newspapers. The apparently clueless Mike may be a source for much of the humour ("Do you know what 'cathartic' means?"), but when you hear his tales of drug-induced hell you realise he's lucky to be alive.
And let's not forget Uncle Bill, who's patronage will earn him an Executive Producer credit. The geriatric Uncle Bill comes across as barely understanding what's going on, and in his lucid moments has his doubts about joining the film industry, but the incessantly-talking Mark's encouragement is touching. Mark's drive to make it in the movies becomes desperate, and while there are many laugh-out-loud scenes, such as the attempted destruction of a cupboard door with an actor's head, you have mixed feelings because this man's whole life revolves around this project and you don't want to see his shaky optimism ruined by failure. There is a bittersweet ending to the tale, and the clips they show of Coven don't look bad at all when you know the story behind them, so you wish Mark and his crew all the luck in the world. Music performed by Mike Schank, on his guitar.