Dalton's Dream


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Dalton's Dream
"It’s tribute to the collaborative feel of this film that the documentary continually takes its lead from what Harris is saying rather than pushing him this way and that." | Photo: Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest

The pressure cooker nature of reality television meets the unblinking spotlight of fan expectancies and the fickle nature of fame in Kim Longinotto and Franky Murray Brown’s moving documentary. Their cameras follow The X Factor’s 2018 winner Dalton Harris over the four-year period during which he aced the ITV singing competition and tried to forge his subsequent career, while also coming to terms with his childhood and exploring his gender identity.

The raw talent of Harris is striking from the outset but, crucially for television ratings, he also had the sort of back story that shows like The X Factor love. Born in Jamaica, which made him unique as the first non-British and Black winner of the show, he also had a turbulent, impoverished upbringing with the sort of triumph over adversity that viewers can't resist. Where a mainstream TV channel might handle all of this in sensationalist fashion veteran Longinotto - along with editor-turned-documentarian Murray Brown - takes a characteristically intimate approach to the material, that gently allows Harris’ story and his feelings about it to emerge in ways that are frequently poignant but never feel exploitative.

The film - skilfully edited by Longinotto’s regular collaborator Ollie Huddleston - starts with a primer in his X Factor win, recapping some of his songs and the judges’ reaction. As the contest unfolded, Harris became an internet sensation in Jamaica but he faced a homophobic backlash after an innocuous group photo was taken of him and other contestants in which he was sitting on the knee of fellow competitor Brendan Murray.

Without labouring the point, a quick dip into the archive informs us of British colonial laws in Jamaica that are still on the books, which prohibit same-sex relationships and which have infused the country with a deep-rooted homophobia. Harris was quickly labelled a “batty boy” by many and, again while not over-emphasising it, this documentary shows us the shocking level of vitriol and threat Harris faced as a result. Although Harris is now comfortable being public about his pansexuality, that is a place we see him arriving at over time.

It’s tribute to the collaborative feel of this film that the documentary continually takes its lead from what Harris is saying rather than pushing him this way and that. A return to Jamaica, in the wake of the trolling, is testimony to the singer’s personal courage, as it brought him not just into a potential danger zone in terms of his social media haters but also back into the orbit of his mother, who had beaten him and put him out when he was a child.

The film never makes light of Harris’ struggles with his mental health or his career - which although not the dominant note here, highlights the manipulative and often frustrating nature of the record industry. One particularly illustrative moment shows Harris - who it turns out is also a dab hand with a sewing machine - sticking to his guns over an outfit against a wall of passive aggression from his management.

There is the constant sense of Longinotto and Murray Brown walking alongside the singer, keeping pace with his experience without pushing him in a specific direction. There’s a raw honesty as he tries to reconnect with his mother and improve his mental wellbeing, that can only come from a place of total trust with the filmmakers. Above all else in a film that celebrates small achievements rather than looking for overly positive framing, they let his voice - both as a singer and as an advocate, ring out.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2023
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The story of Dalton Harris' rise to X Factor fame and what happened next.

Director: Kim Longinotto, Franky Murray Brown

Starring: Dalton Harris

Year: 2023

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK

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