The Good: Excellent acting, Intriguing characters, Decent pacing, Tone
The Bad: Nothing happens!
The Basics: In an understated and underrated drama, Dreamland satisfies, even if the DVD has no significant extras. :(
2006 was not the best year for movies. Looking at the nominees for Best Picture was just an argument for making the Oscars every two or three years. And while the mainstream movies may have been uninspired, the art films had one or two gems. Dreamland, which I was introduced to via a trailer on DVD to a much worse film, caught my attention. While it might not stack up in other years as a contender, it should have been last year. My instant vote would have been to replace Little Miss Sunshine (panned, er, reviewed here!) with Dreamland in the big categories.
Audrey has just graduated high school and returned to her trailer park to tend to her alcoholic father and dying friend when in drives a truck carrying the shirtless Mookie. Mookie is a creative young man who is training to return to playing college basketball and he instantly captures Audrey's attention. Unfortunately for Audrey, when she pushes Mookie toward her friend Calista, both Mookie and Calista take her up on it and Audrey watches as the two fall in young love. As Audrey watches Calista no longer needing her, she begins to dream that her poetry can be her way out of the trailer park and for the first time she seriously considers leaving.
What's good about Dreamland are the characters. It's important to say right off the bat that nothing happens in this movie. This is not a big "things happen" movie. Instead, nothing happens. If you're waiting for things to happen, it'll be a long wait (though the movie is only 88 minutes). This is a movie filled with quiet moments, waiting, and a whole lot of no action. In fact, there's not even a lot of movement in the film. There are a lot of static shots where the sky moves around Dreamland, the trailer park, where days fade and begin and nothing happens.
Which is why the characters have to be pretty extraordinary to sell Dreamland and they are interesting enough to fit the bill. Why? They are complex and multifaceted. A perfect example is Audrey's father, Henry. Henry is portrayed as an alcoholic who has lost his wife and is completely broken by it, so much so that he never leaves the trailer park. But he's not an idiot, as many drunks are portrayed as in films and television, and he's not inhuman. Instead, he's perceptive and watching Audrey struggle allows him to reach out of his own problems. There's a wonderful moment when Audrey reads him a poem about Mookie and he just quietly says, "Your narrator's not Calista." It's the moment that we realize that this is not a guy who has always been lost and that it's unfortunate that he is lost now.
Calista is a lot of fun, from the beginning. Calista, we learn quickly, is dying slowly of MS and in the opening scenes, Calista changes her name ostensibly because "Calista" sounds more like a porn star. The dialogue between Calista and Audrey as they sit in bikinis in their hot tub in the desert instantly gets the viewer into the place and mood of the characters. Calista is dying, so she dreams big, wanting mostly to be Miss America and win for being beautiful, having a strong social agenda and getting the pity vote. She's weird and fun and tragic.
Mookie is pretty generic, though it's refreshing to see a young person with dreams and ambitions. Mookie's defining moment, more than in the love he shares with Calista and longs for with Audrey, is as he practices basketball without a ball at night because he does not want to wake any of the trailer park residents up. It's cute and pulled off well.
Audrey is the central character, though and she is easily one of the most kind, giving young people portrayed in film in the last decade. Audrey is prepared to stay in Dreamland to tend to her father and Calista and keep her dead-end job in the convenience store nearby so she can be near those who need her. Audrey is faced with a very real choice and she pulls it off well. The story works in part because she is not perfect; she's having fairly meaningless sex with her coworker, she tries smoking because Calista cannot and she gets into a drug situation that puts her in danger.
On that note, I've been awfully critical of movies where youth are portrayed as idiot drug users fairly homogeneously (I believe I was most scathing about it in my review of Garden State, available here!). In Dreamland, Audrey does not go into her experimentation blindly and she certainly seems to learn from it. Moreover, there are consequences for her actions and I like that. That's the element too often missing from such films where every kid does it.
And what makes Audrey so believable is the acting. Portrayed by Agnes Bruckner, Audrey is an introverted enabler who quietly lurches through her life. Bruckner plays her with an expert awkwardness most like Clea Duvall. Bruckner has a subtle delivery that is excellently timed for realism. Lines do not come out of her mouth with the precision of a writer, but instead with the agony of a young woman caught in a genuine dilemma day after day.
Similarly, Kelli Garner is wonderful as Calista. Garner's real talent comes in her physical acting. She portrays weakness amazingly and as her condition gets worse at various points, her face actually becomes puffier. I was impressed. Justin Long proves he can do more than run around without a shirt or sell Macs as Mookie. Long, the Mac persona on the recently popular commercials, is understated here and he sells the idea of Mookie quite well.
Bit roles by Gina Gershon and Chris Mulkey are decently presented as well.
It is John Corbett who is amazing beyond the others in Dreamland. Corbett creates Henry almost exclusively through body language and he's phenomenal in the role. He slouches and sticks out his stomach to become the drunk Henry, perspiring profusely. And as the character transforms, Corbett transforms his whole body and persona. It's impressive.
Dreamland is a great drama and a wonderful character study and it works in part because of the static shots of director Jason Matzner. Matzner is a minimalist of movement here and that powerfully creates the mood. The viewer feels as trapped as Audrey and the sense of confinement works expertly. The script by Tom Willett is strong, giving him a lot of field to play in emotionally.
Anyone who likes a good drama and intriguing, distinct characters will find something to enjoy in Dreamland. Just don't expect a lot to happen. It's still a better choice where things happen, but they add up to nothing. Here, nothing happens and the cumulative effect is vivid and worth your time and attention.
For other works with Justin Long, check out:
New Girl - Season 1
Going The Distance
He’s Just Not That Into You
Zack And Miri Make A Porno
Waiting . . .
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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