It's difficult to determine when dreaming of becoming the next big filmmaker joined dreaming of becoming a rock star or movie star as one of the pipe dreams of choice for star-struck adolescents. Still, it's all but impossible to deny the glamour and prestige afforded to gutsy young filmmakers. Inevitably, however, for every Kevin Smith and Spike Lee who makes it, hundreds of unsuccessful filmmakers hold on to their artistic dreams as a way of staving off the tedium and disappointment of everyday life. Documentarian Chris Smith's American Movie deftly chronicles the life of one such dreamer, Mark Borchardt, a scraggly, goateed, working-class Wisconsinite and high-school dropout who clings to his dreams of making a film called Northwestern despite his lack of money, resources, and technical skill. Though American Movie could have easily turned into a condescending, Jerry Springer-esque freak show, Smith's powerful film instead makes Borchardt's strangely touching story at once universal and firmly rooted in a specific place and time. Here, Borchardt is something of an existential hero, oblivious to the obstacles and barriers before him and focused instead on his monomaniacal attempts to get his film made. Black humor abounds as Borchardt and his associates attempt to rise above their lot in life. But to his credit, Smith never undervalues the power of daydreaming as both an escape and as a way of denying the bleakness of life. As a depiction of the dehumanizing effects of poverty, a pitch-black comedy, and a portrayal of a side of American life seldom featured in movies or television, American Movie is as distinctive and endlessly compelling as its unforgettable subject.