(Canada, 108 min.)
Dir. Nathan Morlando, Writ. Kevin Coughlin, Ryan Grassby
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore
Mean Dreams is the third entry in this year’s unofficial “two lovers on the run” trilogy of Canadian film that includes Bruce McDonald’s Weirdos and Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear. It’s the lesser of the three films. While the other two films have a similar note of formula in their basic premises, McDonald and Nguyen use their familiarity to turn genre convention on its heel and offer something fresh and new. Mean Dreams director Nathan Morlando knows the benefits of such an approach given his own take on gangster films in his breakout feature Edwin Boyd, which gives the genre of jolt of electricity. There’s nothing really new to Mean Dreams, though, and despite the picturesque beauty of the film, Morlando’s eagerly awaited second feature is something of a disappointment.
The two lovers on the run in this case are Casey (Sophie Nélisse of Monsieur Lazhar and The Book Thief) and Jonas (Josh Wiggins, Max), a pair of kids falling in love in some non-descript part of the American badlands. They take a liking to one another amidst the grey skies and barren poverty of the community, and Mean Dreams shows them frolicking in the gorgeous landscape together. The fall leaves, which DP Steve Cosens (Born to Be Blue) lenses handsomely in a palette of earthy tones and golden hues, note a change in seasons as the young lovers grow up quickly. They must turn a new leaf, so to speak, and fend for themselves.
Casey and Jonas hit the roads when Casey’s snarling crooked cop of a father Wayne (Bill Paxton) kills some mo-fos in a nasty drug deal. Mean Dreams sets up Wayne as a poor candidate for Father of the Year from the outset as he tinkles his tumblers of whisky amidst the wood panelling of the new home he’s purchased for himself and Casey. Drunken beatings and violent attacks on Casey and Jonas signal a dangerous, volatile man and a need to escape. Jonas decides to protect Casey by stealing Wayne’s money from the aforementioned drug bust and they flee à la Kit and Alice in Weirdos and Lucy and Roman in Bear. Their route is one of bad choices, self-discovery, and escaping the shackles of parental neglect.
Mean Dreams also displays obvious influence from Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the template for most young lovers on the run dramas, but the similarities mostly rest on the basic premise and indebtedness to the landscape. Mean Dreams simply runs through formula and well-tread terrain as the screenplay by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby takes Casey and Jonas on a predictable journey. The performances do little to pull Mean Dreams from cliché, too, as Nélisse and Wiggins have little chemistry (and seem unfortunately outpaced by the material), while Paxton’s cartoonishly evil daddy borders upon unwatchable. Colm Feore has some fun chewing the scenery as a fellow crooked cup, but even his character hails from the bag of cookie cutters with which Coughlin and Grassby shape their dough.
The familiar ground nevertheless makes the most of its visual terrain as Morlando tries to do something unique with the landscape by drawing upon the power of the autumnal setting as Casey and Jonas go through their own change of seasons. The impoverished setting adds a flavour of northern gothic with its dark and stark compositions, while the unconventional score by Son Lux is frequently unnerving, but the strength of setting actually leads to the biggest disappointment at the heart of Mean Dreams. Despite the strong use of the landscape, Mean Dreams is generic and placeless. There’s no reason for the film to play out in the Brand X township of the American badlands rather than the northern Ontario landscape from which it draws its power.
Morlando’s Edwin Boyd remains a great example for the potential that lives in Canadian films that refuse to mask their Canadian character, as the use of place and distinct regional flavour gives our national cinema a unique take on the gangster genre. It takes ownership of a well-worn genre by making it our own. This sense of innovative ownership lets Two Lovers and a Bear and Weirdos stand out in this year’s lovers on the run trilogy because they do something fresh, unusual, and unreservedly proud with their origins. While Casey and Jonas come into their own by traversing the land, Mean Dreams ultimately falls victim to its own identity crisis. By trying to hide itself, it struggles to stand out in the field.
Mean Dreams is now playing in limited release.