Mean Dreams


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mean Dreams
"With little glances, with the pitch of her voice, Nélisse shows us that Casey is alert to what''s happening around her." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

It's as common a story in backwoods America today as it was in Medieval European folklore: boy meets girl, girl's father disapproves, trouble ensues. There's nothing particularly new about the events unfolding in Nathan Morlando's small town drama, but a subtle shift in perspective speaks of an ongoing cultural shift, both in American society and in cinema itself. Young couples on the run ain't what they used to be.

Josh Wiggins is Jonas, an ordinary farm boy, so probably assumes it's his destiny to save the universe some day. In the meantime, he'll content himself with saving pretty new neighbour Casey (Sophie Nélisse), whose father, Wayne (Bill Paxton) beats her. The problem is that not only is Wayne quite happy to beat Jonas too, he's also a police officer, so there's nobody to turn to. When Jonas overhears something he shouldn't, the stakes are raised yet again, and he decides to take Casey and head off across country, Wayne uses his detective skills to stay on their trail.

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This is Bill Paxton's final film, released for home entertainment just weeks after his death. It's not his strongest performance but serves as a reminder both of his range as an actor and of his renowned generosity. Though he gives Wayne sufficient unpredictability and enough of a brutal edge to be intimidating - at least to the teenage audience the film is aimed at - he is careful not to overwhelm the young leads. Wiggins works hard but is still struggling to find his feet; in many ways it's his natural uncertainty that makes his character work. Nélisse is more accomplished (viewers may remember her as the young lead in The Book Thief) but spends the first part of this film hiding her light under a bushel for reasons that only become apparent as the story unfolds.

The title, Mean Dreams, is ambiguous. Is it referring to the cruelty of Wayne and his associate, or to the poverty of aspiration that marks out these desolate lives? Jonas and Casey's flight is reminiscent of Holly and Kit's in Badlands, but with less purpose or direction. Because we have seen it before, it's easy to believe that we know what it means, and to see Casey as nothing more than a little girl lost, a wide eyed innocent whose function in the narrative is to inspire conflict between men. But what if this film isn't about the men at all? What if it's really her story? With little glances, with the pitch of her voice, Nélisse shows us that Casey is alert to what''s happening around her. Though she spends most of her time in the background, it's her decisions on which everything ultimately hinges.

The flat, open country that makes up many of America's most deprived areas is currently a go-to location for indie filmmakers, so for all that cinematographer Steve Cosens tries, there's not much he can say about this desolate landscape that hasn't been said before, brooding shots of rainclouds and default indie soundtrack notwithstanding. The woodlands into which we travel fare a little better but raise many questions about how these kids are supposed to be surviving day to day. Too much is assumed and the thin plot has too much padding when those two problems could have been solved at one stroke. It's the acting that carries the film, together with the sweetness of the under-written central romance. Viewers who relate to these young people will find themselves gripped.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2017
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Mean Dreams packshot
Thriller about two teens who are desperate to escape their abusive lives but find their problems exacerbated by a corrupt cop.

Director: Nathan Morlando

Writer: Kevin Coughlin, Ryan Grassby

Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore, Vickie Papavs, Ryan Blakely, Matt Connors, Tara Nicodemo, Janine Davies

Year: 2016

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: Canada


Cannes 2016

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