Gangsters and outlaws, G-Men and detectives, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and going on the run to escape your past and present — one would be hard-pressed not to see the similarities between Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s (As You Are) Dreamland and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Sure, it’s not exactly the same storyline — the details are a little different, but worthwhile, regardless.
Dreamland is the story of 17-year-old Eugene (Finn Cole), who dreams of escaping his bleak, humdrum life in a small Texas town during the Great Depression. He lives for the stories he reads in the detective magazines of G-men, gangsters, outlaws, and bank robbers who are living life on the edge. He also dreams of escaping to a better life in Mexico and reuniting with his father (who left when he was 5), but his age, mother (Kerry Condon), and half-sister Phoebe (Darby Camp) are the only things keeping him rooted.
That is, until one fateful day when he stumbles upon an injured fugitive in the form of a beautiful bank robber Allison (Margot Robbie), who happens to have a huge bounty on her head and everyone is looking for her — including Eugene’s step-father and lawman George (Travis Fimmel). Will Allison be Eugene’s way out (and making him the Clyde to her Bonnie), or will he turn her in for the reward that his family and town so desperately needs?
Dreamland is interestingly told from the perspective of Eugene’s precocious younger sister (narrated as an adult by Lola Kirke), who is trying to set the record straight and tell his story 20 years after that fateful encounter — but has the passage of time muddled the truth? The bond between brother and sister is unbreakable, and Phoebe does whatever she can at every step of the way to protect her brother. But this narrative device is a good way to tell the story of Eugene’s coming-of-age and tragic love story.
The day he stumbles upon Allison sets off a chain of events that changes his life forever as he embarks on a journey to become a man and chase his happiness no matter the cost. But there are obstacles and roadblocks at every turn. Between ambiguity surrounding Allison’s “innocence,” the worst dust storm in years, and his step-father hot on their trail, Eugene embarks on a journey that gets him in way over his head.
As the film progresses, one is left questioning Allison’s motives and intentions — although she has tried to dissuade Eugene from going on the lamb with her, is she being sincere with her feelings and honest with him about her past? She is on the run, after all, for “killing” five people during a bank robbery with her boyfriend (Garrett Hedlund). Is she just being manipulative and taking advantage of a naive, young man? Eugene longs to prove that he is a man and just wants to be treated as an adult, and after all, we know desperate people do desperate things as he enters a world that isn’t made for kids. In the end, Eugene must accept the consequences of his decisions and pick his burden.
Although Dreamland starts off very slow, the tension is there from the beginning — just like watching a dust storm make its way to town. The film is bleak and depressive with only fleeting moments of happiness — just like the time period. There are a few scenes sprinkled throughout the film that keep you engaged — like the tenderly shot shower scene or the heart-stopping standoff ending (reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde but not quite as violent).
The use of camera angles, lighting, and characters speaking off-screen helps viewers focus on the emotions and small nuances in the actors’ performances. The acting is solid all around, but Darby Camp (Big Little Lies) is definitely a scene-stealer and holds her own amongst the adults. Cole and Robbie deliver believable performances, and the chemistry is definitely there. Travis Fimmel (Vikings) also does a great job of conveying the varied emotions of a stern yet compassionate step-father who has a contentious relationship with his teenage step-son.
The cinematography and editing in Dreamland is expertly done and does a good job of weaving the flashbacks of the past with the present and even the future Dreamland of Mexico, which our two protagonists are so desperately trying to reach. Sometimes we have to be willing to risk it all for what we really want. The costuming and hair and makeup definitely transport you back to this time period. In the end, although the story is pretty predictable and feels like we’ve seen this before (and not quite enough action and drama as its predecessor), the performances in “Dreamland” are solid enough to merit the time spent on this slow burn.