First time directors, especially the young and struggling variety, indubitably extend more heart and soul (and often less money) into their debut features. I suspect there are graveyards of these minor-league sacrifices out there awaiting discovery in retrospective salutes for now established talent, or for late night unreeling on obscure cable channels. Successful or not, some of these first-born films tend to hurdle their filmmakers along the yellow brick road to more enlightened and less stressful projects. Others end up disillusioned, depressed, and working for their father’s accounting firm. Over the last year, among this emerging tenure-bound faculty or future dunce-corner sitters, are Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) Maria Ripoll (Twice Upon a Yesterday), Sam Miller (Among Giants), Brian Helgelund (Payback), and Paul Quinn (This Is My Father). With the advent of digital video, anyone can envision him or herself the next Spielberg by making their own shoestring productions.
But before we are conquered by DV cheapies, director-writer Ann Lu, who immigrated to the United States from China six years ago to study film, has now become a member of the rookie 35mm club with Dreamers, her admirable low-budget initiation piece that takes a sideways glance of making it in the filmmaking business. It’s a low-key, caustic tale on the underside of Hollywood and two small town neophytes who paint slightly different yet dismal perspectives of a very darkly-lit Tinseltown and how they deal with their personal fears in getting there. The picture plays between various levels of dreams and reality, and Los Angeles is, of course, where fantasies and dreams can come true (although the odds are against you). There’s also a passing homage to Truffuat’s The 400 Blows, in portraying the courage of a child to break away from a difficult family situation.
Awaiting a distribution deal, the film has been making the usual “international” festival rounds (Palm Springs, Malibu, Temecula Valley, Huntington) and was screened October 17th at the Charles Cinema in Baltimore as part of Cinema Sundays, a series, hosted by Gabriel Wardell, that has become essential viewing for Maryland cinephiles since 1995. As you anticipate catching this film next year at an arthouse near you, catch up with its Internet presence at http://www.dreamersthemovie.com. While this feature won’t garner the incredible coverage and success that The Blair Witch Project gathered by its web-based marketing strategy, there’s a closer-than-you-think connection with this year’s notorious nausea-inducing fright fest, as both films were photographed by ten-year indie veteran Neal L. Fredericks. With this newer feature, Fredericks does show that he can keep the picture in focus ON PURPOSE. He shot the film with a colorful neon-emblazoned style despite the budgetary constraints and a compressed eighteen-day schedule. Most of the cast and crew worked for no more than gas money, with financing from friends, family, and credit cards.
The film opens in the backwater community of Jefferson
City, Tennessee (sharing roots with the indie feature Tumbleweeds), where young teens Dave Jacobson and Ethan Mullane find
themselves estranged in one way or another from their families. Introverted Dave
shares his dinner table with overly-Christian father, while the outgoing Ethan
flees his white-trash existence for L.A. on New Year’s Eve. We move forward
several years to find him enduring a dull construction job, living with his
divorced, nagging mother, and suffering from CFDS, Chronic Filmmaking Deficiency
Syndrome, still trying to get his film project off the ground. Dave eventually
takes the bus west, reading the Dreamers script and slipping in and out of cinema consciousness
during the ride. Jeremy Jordan and Mark Ballou portray Dave and Ethan with
earnest determination in performances that adequately shape the characters,
particularly in several sexually-repressed situations. The supporting cast all
have small, somewhat recognizable resumes, particularly Paul Bartel (playing a
hard-nosed pornographic film distributor), best known as the director-star of Eating
Raoul. Ruth de Sosa puts in a revealing spin as a repressed Beverly Hills
housewife in search of cheap thrills. Courtney Gains plays Ethan’s red-haired
producer with a dumb innocence, thinking he has gained an important foreign
backer only to learn the huge wad of Peruvian currency he holds is nearly
Director-writer Lu layers her script (which she admits went through twenty revisions) with numerous dream-like interludes that ended up confusing some members of the audience. I was befuddled by a briefs-versus-boxers reference, but otherwise enjoyed watching the dirty underwear of Hollywood being laid bare. Lu handles her cast well, within their emerging acting levels, and several scenes were particularly funny-poignant, especially when a funked-out Ethan tries to please his demanding mother by selling Amway products to a group of acquaintances and tourists, or when Dave’s mother, calling from home, tell him they know it’s tough in California, because “she and dad watch Hard Copy.” There is nudity and profanity, notably when Dave gets a job as second cameraman on a soft-core film.
The grudge and warts are revealed in their depressing glory in Dreamers, which is more a revelation than a downer. Lu has other projects on tap and, based on the positive reactions her first effort has been receiving, she should be enjoying a career quite a bit more successful than poor Ethan.