Vivid passages float unmoored in the conceptual muddle of “Sweet Dreams,” Slovak helmer Saso Podgorsek’s second feature after the well-received “Dark Angels.” Best when hewing to classic Eastern Euro Iron Curtain adolescence comedy, technically accomplished effort is far less assured in developing its more disturbing undercurrents of mental instability and sexual abuse. Uneven pic will be most at home as tube fare after making the fest rounds.
Prolific local novelist Miha Mazzini’s screenplay juggles an intriguing load of semi-autobiographical nostalgia, eccentric characters and light-hearted-to-grim narrative threads. Complex tonal range it requires is lacking in Podgorsek’s production — larky touch applied to comic set pieces doesn’t give way to appropriate gravitas when needed.
Thus saga of geeky 13-year-old Egon (Janko Mandic) taking first steps toward adulthood in a 1973 Slovak hamlet never gains cumulative import, remaining episodic and erratic throughout.
Fatherless Egon endures a bizarre home life, tugged between warring religious-nutcase Grandma (Iva Zupancic) and promiscuous, neglectful, possibly schizophrenic Mom (Veronika Drolc). His biggest dream is to score his very own record player, though fearless new best friend Fric (Luka Tratnik), the local cinema owner’s delinquent son, instigates a few more daring pursuits.
Their movie-inspired pranks and exploratory overtures toward the opposite sex are amusingly handled, as is usage of the period’s pop-cultural reference points. But pic’s disorganization is typified by fact that two particularly promising adult characters, discotheque stud Uncle Vinko (Josef Nadj) and neighboring stoner Roman the Hippie (Grega Bakovic), get little more than cameo-level screentime.
Far more problematic, however, is inability to build real drama from the potentially harrowing threads of Mom’s not-so-funny mental illness and a male gym teacher’s ongoing molestation of a classmate Egon is attracted to (it’s unclear whether he, too, later suffers the same forced attentions).
Despite a handful of unpleasant scenes — plus a quite nasty one where Egon is bullied psychologically and physically by the jock instructor — neither subplot gets enough sustained emphasis to seem more than jarring and ill-considered. After a while it’s clear the film simply isn’t going to pull its various elements into focus, leaving final half-hour or so a rudderless plod.
Despite that lack of balance, “Sweet Dreams” confirms Podgorsek as a rising talent. Uncle V’s early nightclub demonstration of why he’s the town’s King of Twist provides the giddiest showcase for helmer’s consistent visual flair and fondness for pop kitsch. Perfs are solid, design and tech aspects ditto.