Canadian filmmaker Nathan Morlando follows up his successful and award winning debut feature, Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, with Mean Dreams, a vastly different, but more emotionally powerful story of fugitives on the lam. Adults will surely enjoy a lot of what they see because it’s reminiscent of smart, character based young adult fiction akin to what David Gordon Green did with Joe and Jeff Nichols did with Mud. And while it’s not particularly original, I could also see the film picking up a pretty sizable teen following. It’s packed with the kind of darkness that teens and adults can understand equally well.
Somewhere in unspecified Middle America, teenage cowboy Jonas (Josh Wiggins) is thrilled when an attractive young woman his own age, Casey (2016 TIFF Rising Star Sophie Nélisse) moves onto the property next to his family farm. The two become fast friends, and slowly become more than that, much to the chagrin and ire of Casey’s drunken, abusive, crooked cop of a father, Wayne (Bill Paxton). The more Casey’s dad tells Jonas to stay away – often employing physical violence to prove his point – the more Jonas wants to help Casey. They get their chance after Jonas witnesses Wayne and the local sheriff (Colm Feore) ripping off a lot of money from a biker gang. Jonas steals the money and the two teens try to make a quick getaway to a better life.
Visually, Morlando owes a big debt to Terence Malick, but thematically he owes a healthy nod to classic teen literature and outlaw cinema of the ’50s and ’60s. Morlando and screenwriters Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby never look down upon Casey and Jonas’ naïveté, and allow the young actors to thoroughly flesh out a believably friendly and subtly romantic teenage partnership. There are a lot of big emotions in Mean Dreams, but Morlando and the subtle work of his two leads (and some true menace from Paxton, tapping into a brand of crazy he hasn’t showcased since Frailty) bring the nuance that holds it all together.
It’s a gorgeous looking, purposefully cold film, and a well done, teen based neo-noir where most of the shortcomings arise from the sometimes inherently implausible, often escapist touches peppered throughout the story. Many scenes in the film are predicated upon either Josh or Casey (sometimes both) going unnoticed by those tracking them. What emerges between the sumptuous visuals, great performances, and unforced emotion is a film packed with one near miss situation after another. Once Jonas and Casey go on the run, Morlando scarcely offers audiences a moment to breathe, and the action beats begin to acquire a sense of familiarity that drags the film down a bit.
As a follow up to an underrated Canadian film success, though, Mean Dreams is quite good, and relatively entertaining despite a few hiccups along the way. With two vastly different features under his belt, I’m curious to see where Morlando heads from here, but I’m sure it will be interesting.