The Cinematography in the film, American Beauty, plays a pivotal role in establishing character, both in their relationships to one another as well as the role each one plays in the movie. Much of the movie's perspective is derived from the main character, Lester Burnham. Consequently the cinematography reflects Lester's nature, which is at times apathetic, cynical, fatalistic, fantastical, and, ultimately, nostalgic.
The film begins with an aerial shot, displaying a typical tree-lined suburban neighborhood. Lester's voice over can be heard, but his house's location within the neighborhood is left unspecified and the viewer instead is left to absorb the endless slew of seemingly identical rooftops. As the film centers heavily on Lester's family life, perhaps one of the most indicative illustrations of this is the long shot of the Burnham's dining room that is used multiple times throughout the film. The decoration of the room is elegant but stark, exemplifying the Burnham's sterile home life. The composition of the shot itself is taken from the side of the excessively long dining room table, with Lester at one end, his wife at the other, and their daughter caught in the middle, indicating where she finds herself during Lester and Carolyn's bickering. When Lester goes to work at a job where he feels confined and unappreciated, the shot is constructed so that the ceiling, cubicles, and the harsh overhead lights are all exaggerated for the viewer.
Lester's fantasies center on Jane's best friend, Angela. The shots of these daydreams are executed with soft lighting, to reflect the serene nature of these dreams, and the color is minimal aside from the deep red of the roses that become synonymous with Lester's ideal of Angela throughout the film.
At the film's conclusion, Lester gives a posthumous account of his fondest memories. As he recounts these nostalgic moments, they are recounted visually with a left to write tracking shot in soft black and white, allowing for seamless transitions to give the feel that these memories flow together for Lester.