Movie Review: “Dreamland” (2020)

What is the truth? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do we convey stories that are true? Is it a question of getting the sentiment right; of getting the facts right; or of making sure that it is all, on every level, 100% accurate? The question of truth may appear easy to answer on the surface, but with a little examination it proves so much more difficult. The new film “Dreamland,” directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and written by Nicolaas Zwart, brings the problems of the truth to the fore.

Taking place in rural Texas in 1935, “Dreamland” centers on a young man, Eugene (Finn Cole), who lives with his mother, Olivia (Kerry Condon); stepfather, George (Travis Fimmel); and half-sister, Phoebe (Darby Camp). Into this family’s life comes a bank robber on the run, Allison (Margot Robbie). A beautiful woman hiding and in need of help, she the exact right—or wrong—element for Eugene’s life as he’s getting older, looking for the next thing, and wondering whatever happened to his father, a man who ran off to Mexico when Eugene was still young.

Crucially, it is an older Phoebe, voiced by Lola Kirke, who is telling us the story. She is, as an adult, relaying a 20 year old history about something she witnessed as a child. Instantly one has to ask about questions of memory and perception – is she correctly recalling the events she saw back then and if she witnessed those events as an adult would they mean something different; would she perceive (and remember) what occurred in different fashion. Then, there are questions about how she came to have information about events for which she wasn’t present, because we certainly see moments which she did not (this is not a complaint about the film in any way—there are certainly solutions to the issue—but rather a working towards praise).

We even get multiple versions of the same flashback as we, maybe, get closer to the truth of certain moments. Which truth? I don’t exactly know, that depends on your point of view. The whole movie depends on your point of view. It depends on what you make of the narrator as well as those who figure in her story.

Look at Eugene – is he a sucker for falling head-over-heels for Allison? How much did the memories of his father, and the one postcard he received from the man after he left, affect Eugene’s decisions vis-à-vis Allison? How much did Phoebe understand about Eugene’s feelings at the time she witnessed the story?

Viewed through this lens, George becomes much more of an interesting figure. A member of law enforcement, George had a vested interested in bringing Allison in and in quieting any questions about his stepson’s involvement. As a child and consequently having a less nuanced view of the world and motivations, was Phoebe aware of her father’s conflicts in these issues and simply in raising someone else’s son, particularly when that son clearly pined for his missing father? How did Phoebe’s perceptions there affect her understanding of the story then which affects her ability to tell it now?

Phoebe’s interactions with Allison were minimal at best, and yet Allison is one of the most intriguing figures in Phoebe’s telling. How did she come to draw in all those details?

Like so many other questions bout the movie, it is fascinating to ask these even if hey are unanswerable. The movie does not offer the impression that it is blissfully unaware of the fact that these questions exist, rather it wants them placed in the fore in the audience’s mind and has no desire to hold one’s hand as they develop.

With really good performances from Cole, Robbie, and Fimmel; a haunting score; and memorable visuals, “Dreamland” would be a fascinating movie without any of the questions being brought up simply by the manner in which it unfolds. However, because of they do exist and because it has the very title “Dreamland,” we are forced to question everything that much more. We are forced to look that much harder at it all. We are forced to wonder and to ask and to think.

On an emotional level, “Dreamland” left this critic far more cold than it ought. It seems most likely that the very thing that makes it so intriguing on an intellectual front—the questions surrounding of what this actually occurred, what didn’t, and of the events we see which have been altered by memory—left me too far at a distance from my feelings. I spent all the time in my head and too little of it in my heart because the questions surrounding the story are far more interesting than the tale itself.

Like the movie itself, there’s a cautionary tale in there for those who would hear it.

photo credit: Paramount

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