No sooner had Terrence Malick taken up the terse, parched genre poetry of “Badlands” in 1973 than he abandoned it in favor of lusher cinematic experimentation. Perhaps he knew that in the ensuing half-century, more than enough eager imitators would keep that style in regular, albeit less revelatory, rotation. Which brings us to “Mean Dreams,” an unconvincing, autumn-clothed youth-in-peril thriller so in thrall to Malick’s debut that even the cadence of its title seems a homage.
Notwithstanding its decorous widescreen shots of rippling grass and drying laundry, Canadian helmer Nathan Morlando’s sophomore feature seems at first to have a soul of its own as it sketches the sweet, immediate bond between two lonely teens in a yellowed belt of unspecified American farmland. But as the film pulls them into a hot-and-hoary plot involving corrupt cops, motel hideouts, a mustachioed Bill Paxton and (what else?) a duffel bag full of stolen cash, the weaknesses of Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby’s script come to the fore, as does the relative stylistic thinness of Morlando’s wholewheat Americana — which falls short even of the superior Malick pastiche of David Lowery’s 2013 “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which likewise played in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. While this festival strand has proven a successful launchpad for hard-boiled U.S.-set genre fare in recent years, “Mean Dreams” may prove neither mean enough nor dreamy enough to attract major distributor attention.
The element likeliest to rouse viewers from the snoozier stretches of “Mean Dreams” is 17-year-old Josh Wiggins, an actor whose unsmoothed, plucky presence already stood out in 2014’s Sundance coming-of-ager “Hellion.” Here, playing well-meaning but rash-acting farm boy Jonas, he demonstrates soft charm to match his concentrated rebel spirit; his face now carries an endearingly thoughtful, Alden Ehrenreich-style mien. He can’t do much with some of the script’s most lumpily inauthentic dialogue — “You wouldn’t know an angel if you beat on one,” he says to an enemy in a notably feeble attempt at trash-talking — but he does give viewers a sincerely expressive romantic hero to root for.
When shy girl Casey (Sophie Nélisse, less prodigiously poised here than in “Monsieur Lazhar” and “The Book Thief”) moves in next door with her father, menacing local police officer Wayne (Bill Paxton), Jonas falls fast and hard for her. Swiftly ascertaining the abusive nature of her home life, he resolves to rescue her — though Wayne isn’t having any of it, taking violent warning-off action against his daughter’s quietly resilient suitor. Unwittingly, however, he also provides Jonas with the means for the chaste young lovers’ escape plan: While hiding out in Wayne’s truck, the boy witnesses a corrupt drug deal, and promptly makes off with the sack of banknotes that Wayne coolly collects from the exchange.
Needless to say, Jonas and Casey — accompanied, for maximum love-on-the-run adorability, by her trusty old mutt Blaise — don’t get much of a head start before Wayne, in cahoots with an equally crooked sheriff (Colm Feore), comes hurtling after them. He’s hungry in his pursuit, though perhaps not as much so as Paxton, who guzzles the leafy backwoods scenery with gurning, shrill vigor; for better or worse, he’s on a far campier wavelength than this otherwise earnest exercise in criminal lyricism.
The protracted cat-and-mouse game that ensues is riddled with obstacles, close calls and emotive, gun-toting confrontations, but little tension is rustled up through it all — save for one sweatily ratcheted chase sequence, scored in rattling percussive fashion by gifted composer Son Lux, that surrenders too soon and too easily to calm. The denouement, while departing from the playbook of “Badlands” and its ilk, nonetheless feels preordained.
The join-the-bullet-holes nature of “Mean Dreams'” storytelling would be less of a problem if the characterization were a little more textured, but for all the picturesque anguish on display, the febrile messiness of actual human life is little in evidence. Jonas and Casey remain sympathetic purely on the level of circumstance, with little sense given of what fuels their love beyond the ideal of love itself. Casey, iron-willed or helpless as required by the script, is a particularly faint etching, despite Nélisse’s occasionally impassioned efforts, while her father’s unvaried evil goes mostly unexamined.
Despite its vague U.S. setting, this Canuck-shot production functions most flatteringly as an advertisement for the Ontario Film Commission, with the area’s fogged-mirror lakes and rusty fall foliage providing cinematographer Steve Cosens with his most postcard-ready shots. Elsewhere, meanwhile, Morlando and Cosens’ studied off-center compositions and oatmeal-on-rye palette make no secret of their Andrew Wyeth aspirations, though the film’s images remain more scenic than they are emotionally evocative.