Why is it that trailer parks seem so magical in the movies? I live near a few authentic ones and for me the romance is clearly missing. Still, like those inspired by Easy Rider to finally get that motorcycle and “find” America (“we blew it, man!”), Dreamland actually made me dream of living in a trailer park. Not just any trailer park, but the Dreamland trailer park. Right there on the border of New Mexico where the red sun sets deep in the horizon, and sad but beautiful young girls wear ballroom gowns while visiting electrified fences for a daily jolt.
I’m sure I’ll never find my Dreamland in New Mexico or in Shangri-la, but for 88 minutes, this movie makes it seem like a place just around the corner, where a young girl named Audrey is “no longer a girl, but not yet a woman”, to quote a great American philosopher. It’s this one character and more specifically, the actress who portrays her, Agnes Bruckner, which saves the movie from falling into complete and hollow sentimentality. That and because it often seems as though the film has traveled through a wrinkle in time. Jason Matzner’s debut film somehow exhibits all of the oddball conventions of the quirky indie drama circa 1994. It follows in the tradition of such Sundance favorites as Gas Food Lodging and Ruby in Paradise, and if it had been released in those early days of the new independent movement, it may have been more welcome.
In ‘94, we might have been charmed by the poetic tone and structure of Dreamland, but more than a decade later, the concept is an empty cliché. If the film’s screenwriter, Tom Willet, was never a playwright in name, he’s clearly one at heart. In the theater, we expect characters with symbolic names which are metaphors for something or other, and monologues which sound like nonsense but are really about all of us shuffling about aimlessly while we bear this mortal coil. On stage, this all works since we see the world through the playwright’s words and through the actor. The location is always imaginary and the more “theatrical” it is, the better. The trouble with this approach in a movie is that the visuals of the movie are too damn real. The cold reality onscreen clashes with the attempts to create a separate theatrical reality for a poetic drama.
Dreamland is filled with such theatrical quirks, from the ironic title onward. The cast tries hard, but there is a preciousness about everything from the specific collection of emotionally and physically crippled characters to the locations and costumes. In trying to find the heart of Willet’s script, Matzner and cinematographer Jonathan Sela create a romantic world out of Dreamland. Aspiring poet Audrey feels it’s her responsibility to take care of all the troubled folks around her. Of course she’s really brilliant and keeps applying to colleges whose acceptance letters she hides in a box under her bed. John Corbett plays her alcoholic father, still dealing with his wife’s death and the crippling agoraphobia which prevents him from ever leaving Dreamland to get a job, a life, or even a pack of cigarettes. Kelli Garner plays her best friend who renames herself at the beginning of the film, “Calista” and dreams of one day becoming Miss America. Calista has multiple sclerosis, however, and we don’t know for sure if she’ll ever really make it.
Their false sense of comfort and security is intruded upon by a new neighbor, Mookie (Justin Long), who moves there with his mother (Gina Gershon) and her boyfriend (Chris Mulkey). Mookie is a potential college basketball star who is nursing an injured knee before returning to school. He is also a sensitive 21st century male in touch with his feelings. So it’s no surprise that among no real competition, both Calista and Audrey quickly fall for him. Audrey still plays the martyr, as usual, and basically “gives” him to Calista while pining for him in secret. These are new feelings for Audrey, who claims she never believed in romantic love.
Dreamland believes in love, though. It’s consumed by the romantic. This is the kind of film where the writer must be stopped at all costs from actually writing the line, “We were all living in Dreamland.” Which I may have actually heard in the film in some form. I can’t remember it now, but since I clearly remember feeling some kind of terrible chill run up my spine, I think I blocked the line out of my mind. There’s also all kinds of oddball elements, like the supposedly healing powers of bee stings and electrified fences, and a motorcycle accident featuring Garner dressed as the homecoming queen. It’s all a bit too mystical. Sad and beautiful, yes, but a tad too lovely.
It is the cast that really distinguishes the movie. Kelli Garner was quite good as Howard Hughes’ young lover, Faith Domergue in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, but she’s even better here, making the most of her unique happy/sad face to give Calista a strength of imagination as well as pathos. Instead of cloying and sentimental, she gives Calista an edge, the sad hint that she’s just putting on a smile to convince herself she’s happy. Justin Long has a larger character to work with here than the cool Macintosh computer he plays on TV. His college basketball character is named “Mookie”, which seems as made up as “Calista”, but Long is so damn likable that he’s welcome under any name. The adults in the cast are solid all round, with Corbett in particular exploiting his calm presence onscreen to clash with his character’s trauma.
But this is really Bruckner’s show. She is arguably the most interesting actor of her generation if she even has a generation worth mentioning (Lindsey Lohan?). Just into her early 20s, Bruckner has repeatedly given complex, introspective performances in films that do not always warrant anything more than a paycheck. Since Blue Car, she has appeared in movies as wide ranging as Venom and Rick, that strange updating of Rigoletto by the author of Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler. When the films are actually interesting, such as Lucky McKee’s long awaited follow-up to May, The Woods, they are dumped onto DVD by their distributors unceremoniously. Dreamland is yet another of her films that will serve out it’s sentence in the previously viewed bins of your local Blockbuster and late night cable. The DVD is a bare bones release with some trailers and the usual scene selections thrown in for extras. Nothing more.
One day a major filmmaker will write a great role for Bruckner, and hers will be a household name. Until then, there are small films like Dreamland which, though far from perfect, is better than most thanks to Bruckner’s amazing intimacy with the camera and that peculiar face of hers; both plain and extraordinarily unique in its beauty. She makes you think she is always thinking, and that’s a great talent for an actor.