California Dreamin' mostly observes a series of complicated personal interactions, its point helped along by Doiaru's speeches concerning the ongoing American failure even to try to comprehend the populations it invades, assimilates, abuses, and buys off.
Monica (Maria Dinulescu) has Tiger Beat photos of Leonardo DiCaprio on her bedroom wall. As she's sleeping on this 1999 morning, her father Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu) enters, pokes his finger at her, rustles her pink sheets. Time to get up, he says, "Your prince is here." That would be Paul (Constantin Dita), long-haired, sullen, and possessed of a car. Monica stirs, tells her father to leave her alone; he backs out, she rises, and as she begins her day, she shuts the door.
The camera in this early scene in California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit) pauses ever so briefly to note the closed door, then swings right to pick up a conversation between Doiaru and an unshaven, energetic employee, concerning the "items" arriving at the Capalnita, Romania train station that day, where Doiaru serves as station master. They're planning what they'll be stealing from freight trains this day -- the cigarettes, ball bearings, beer, and fertilizer they'll be reselling for meager profit. Eyes shifty and manner terse, the men barely notice Monica's exit, as she makes her way to see Paul expectant and dressed in a Nike knock-off jacket. When she puts him off ("I thought we agreed we weren't going to see each anymore"), Paul is surprised. "What happened?" he asks, not quite plaintive. "Nothing happened," she says, kissing him lightly, "That's the whole point." She passes him to head back inside the house, the camera swinging with her, a rooster crowing in an unseen distance.
Bored with her boyfriend, her father, the village, Monica dreams of another world, the one where American movie stars party and pose for magazine covers. Her father has his own dreams of America, evidenced by flashbacks from 1944, when he and his family huddled in a basement, bombs exploding all around them. "The Americans will be here today or tomorrow," the adults insist, while the young boy Doiaru (Cristi Olesher) waits, hopeful and afraid, explosions and fires rocking the streets outside. Now, in 1999, Doiaru no longer expects to be saved. Still angry that his wife died in childbirth and increasingly mystified by the yearnings of his daughter, he manages -- each day comprised of multiple minor deceptions, efforts to get over on a system he knows he'll never beat.
That knowledge doesn't stop him from trying, especially when a train carrying NATO forces and equipment arrives in his station. Commanded by Captain Doug Jones (Armand Assante), the combined unit (U.S. marines and Romanian conscripts) is tasked to "Operation Joint Guardian," to bring radar equipment into Romania in support of NATO's air raids against Serbia. Assisted by Sergeant David McLaren (Jamie Elman), Jones is not a little annoyed when his NATO-bestowed authority is questioned at the Capalnita station. While ball bearings factory workers stage a strike down the railroad tracks (a strike that will never get the publicity they seek, as it has nothing to do with the Americans' delay) and students gossip about the handsome soldiers who have descended on their town, Doiaru notes a lack of paperwork. At last granted his chance both to greet Americans and punish them for arriving too late, he refuses to let the train pass through his station, despite an order from Bucharest that he do just that.
The ensuing clashes and comprises take up five days. Each is titled in Cristian Nemescu's first and last feature (the 27-year-old filmmaker was killed in a car accident while he was editing California Dreamin'), according to its narrative focus: "Day One: The Train," "Day Two: The Village," "Day Three: David and Monica," etc. Both aligned and divided by their basic aspirations and disappointments, each of the players has a particular investment that is mostly lost in translation. David can't get through to his girlfriend back in the States, their missed phone calls nagging at him even as he's attracted to the beautiful, so very young Monica. A routinely disinterested student, Monica now sees the value of English as a means of seduction and opportunity. Jones is repeatedly impatience with his translator (frequently distracted by Romanian girls in his lap), and Doiaru, who does have English (a result, he tells Jones, of his many years of waiting for the Americans), uses language -- the letter of the law, so to speak -- to control his domain, if only for a few hours.
As tensions rise, the affable mayor (Ion Sapdaru) decides to throw a party, in honor of Caplnita's anniversary. Jones is reluctant, as he has spent time arguing with and trying to cajole Doiaru, but he attends, with his men, seated at a long table full of traditional foods and entertained by an Elvis impersonator. "This party's for you," the mayor assures his guests, his neck adorned with a red-white-and-blue kerchief. "We are very, very happy that you are in this village." He has already urged citizens to consider making friends with their western visitors will lead to good "publicity" and eventual commercial and political gains (however abstract); the women of the village have gathered to practice seduction techniques, flirtatious poses and useful phrases; and Monica has her own designs, determined to find a way out of Capalnita, going so far as to have her classmate Andrei (Alex Margineanu) translate for her with David. As the designated "dweeb" Andrei has long nursed a desperate crush on Monica, this threeway exchange is especially fraught -- with tension, longing, and fine points of language.
The film mostly observes these complicated interactions, though Doiaru does make clear in various speeches and asides the ongoing American failure even to try to comprehend the populations it invades, assimilates, abuses, and buys off. "How can anyone not hate these Americans?" he wonders. When he sits down for cigars and drink with Jones, he explains the tension by way of his personal history: "I wait for the Americans to come much time," he says, "To save us from Germans, Russians, Communists, Ceauşescu. Finally, you come here, finally. Better later than never."
The Americans are passing through of course, no matter the delay or conflicts over who's in charge of what. California Dreamin' keeps focused on the villagers, their hopes and aggressions, their changing relationships and horizons. Despite and because of the Americans, her father, and her various potential "princes," Monica struggles to break with the past, better later than never.