Director: Nathan Morlando
Cast: Josh Wiggins, Sophie Nélisse, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore, Joe Cobden, Vickie Papavs
MPAA Rating: (for some violence and language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 3/17/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 16, 2017
The first act of Mean Dreams is a surprisingly empathetic examination of its characters. The screenplay by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby frames the story within the context of a blossoming romance between a local teenage boy and a teenage girl who has recently moved nearby.
Both come from troubled homes. Jonas (Josh Wiggins) works on his family ranch alongside his emotionally distant father (Joe Cobden), while his alcoholic mother (Vickie Papavs) spends her days and nights drinking in the house. Jonas doesn't go to school, because his parents decided he better served the family by working without pay.
Casey (Sophie Nélisse) lives with her father Wayne (the late Bill Paxton). Her mother has died, so she fixes her father breakfast in the morning. Everything seems fine. Wayne, who now works for the local police department, tells his daughter that he has plans to move them out of this isolated place soon enough. He drinks, too, though, and it's during one of his drunken phases that he looks at her a bit strangely and keeps his hand pressed to her face for just a little too long. She reminds him of her mother, the father tells Casey.
There's obviously something discomforting about the combination of these gestures and those words, but Paxton turns it into something rather disarming. He's not a bad man in that moment—surely not seeking anything untoward or affirming some immoral feelings he has. As played by the actor, Wayne is a lonely, lost man who's clinging to the only remnants of normalcy he had in his life. He has problems, sure, but the screenplay, the performer, and director Nathan Morlando understand the root of those issues. We don't have to like the guy, but that's not the point. We understand him.
The plot of the first act is about the sweet, innocent romance that begins between Jonas and Casey, and it's also about how Wayne doesn't take too kindly to it. From the father's perspective, the kid is encroaching on his relationship with his daughter. The tensions between the two mount in ways that make us understand that Wayne's emotional problems are too much for him and, especially, his daughter to bear. He starts off as psychologically abusive, insisting that the two teens don't see each other anymore for no particular reason, and then it escalates to physical abuse.
We understand the dynamics at play here in a relatively short period of time. The movie quickly becomes an effective portrayal of abuse, with a hint of the psychological elements behind it, and of the naïve optimism of youth. Jonas is convinced he can stop what's happening to Casey. He reports what he saw—how Wayne hit Casey—and experienced—how Wayne almost killed him for stopping it—to the police chief (Colm Feore). The chief is skeptical, not only because Wayne is one of his guys but also because of Jonas' own family situation.
On a dramatic level, everything is lining up fine until this point. The plot expands, though, as Jonas and Casey go on the run. The reason simplifies everything that has come before it into terms that eliminate the empathetic approach of the first act.
See, Wayne isn't just troubled. He's a monster—a corrupt cop, a thief, a murderer. The story that Casey tells about her mother's death—of cancer when she was a baby—turns out to be lie. Wayne is the cause of that, too, because he was and has always been a drunk and an abuser. The movie becomes a chase story, with the teens trying to evade a man whose ability to track them down is almost preternatural. He or someone associated with him appears whenever the screenplay needs another obstacle for the kids to overcome, which, as it turns out, is quite often.
This could work, of course, if not for the approach of the first act, which deftly avoids such overtly black-and-white depictions of these characters, or the feeling that the movie raises the stakes whenever possible. In terms of the first reason, it comes across as a betrayal of the characters, who begin the movie with the promise of potential depth, only to be reduced to pawns in a convoluted pursuit or broadly defined villains.
In terms of the second, Coughlin and Grassby continually interrupt any possibility of examining Jonas, Casey, and their relationship with the threat of Wayne, who is hunting the kids for a million dollars that he stole from a biker gang and that, in turn, Jonas stole from him. It never feels natural, and it doesn't help that it often feels arbitrary, too (such as when Jonas is severely wounded in a way that Morlando barely makes clear).
The performances, at least, are solid, with Wiggins and Nélisse serving as charming leads. As previously stated, Paxton, in one of his final roles, brings a level of depth to a character who probably doesn't deserve it, and it's a shame that the screenplay diminishes the role of that character to the extent that it does. Mean Dreams starts with promise. It doesn't live up to that promise.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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