Destitute and clinging to threadbare hope, an aspiring Hollywood high-flyer rehearses her Oscar speech at one point in Mike Ott’s is-it-or-isn’t-it docufiction “California Dreams” — though as her earnest sentiments gush forth, it’s entirely someone else’s acceptance speech that springs poignantly to mind. “You can’t trade in your dream for another dream,” said Viola Davis at the SAG Awards a few years back, and so it proves for the troubled human subjects of Ott’s film: a ragtag ensemble of small-time underachievers whose shared, cherished fantasy of making it in the movies gets them up in the morning, but not much further than that. Well, they’re in a movie now: As is Ott’s wont, “California Dreams” blurs the line between simulated vérité and authentic observation, making it often impossible to tell whether those on camera are playing themselves, simply being themselves or a combination of the two. To what extent are they in on the joke? And is the film guilty of exploitation regardless? These are questions openly invited by Ott’s lustrously shot provocation, his most broadly accessible oddity to date.
“Acting is the only thing I’m really good at,” says Cory Zacharia, the most prominently featured of Ott’s subjects — a sweet, ingenuous 28-year-old wastrel from Lancaster, CA, who hasn’t held a job in eight years but still believes silver-screen stardom is achievable. It’s one of many statements in “California Dreams” that is wholly up for debate. Cory doesn’t seem like a good actor. More than once, he delivers an audition monologue from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” with halting lack of conviction, and fields remote, increasingly irate offers of a movie lead from a German producer who likens him to James Bond — a vacancy, one suspects, that has worked its way down the talent ladder.
Yet things aren’t exactly as they appear: In reality, the lanky, uncommanding Zacharia is one of Ott’s regular collaborators, having made his screen debut in 2010’s feature “Littlerock.” If he’s therefore playing a worst-case-scenario version of himself, pining for a break while applying for work at Taco Bell under the skeptical, margarita-blurred gaze of his mother (Elizabeth Zacharia), then he’s playing it rather effectively. There’s something rather moving about the innocence of Cory’s delusion, fabricated or otherwise — a kind of anti-star quality that in itself becomes oddly magnetic. The sheer, pristine beauty of the film’s craft, meanwhile, makes its relative reality even more elusive: Mike Gioulakis’ serenely gorgeous cinematography trades in romantically dusky pastels and studied compositional symmetry, lending a heightened, intrinsically cinematic glow to Ott’s chosen expanses of Californian nowhere. Whether they know it or not, the starry-eyed losers of “California Dreams” are already living in a kind of la la land.
Even as we accept the artifice of the film’s construction, however, Ott’s presentation of his unlikely leading man challenges our comfort. His struggles with basic literacy and numeracy are presented as deadpan comedy — if not at the expense of Cory himself, who may or may not be playing dumb on camera, than at the dreaming masses he represents. By the time an unidentified off-camera interviewer presses Cory for details of his juvenile sexuality and mental health history, “California Dreams” has given us no baseline by which to determine whether the raw, upsetting revelations that ensue are drawn from life or scripted from thin air. Many will see this as wilful, even irresponsible, trickery. At the same time, Ott has artfully constructed a slippery hall of human mirrors, testing and subverting the rules of empathy in documentary and narrative cinema alike.
Similar treatment is accorded the other case studies in “California Dreams,” albeit with far less generous screen time — an imbalance that heightens the risk of cheap caricature. Shy, virginal Filipino immigrant Patrick Llaguno’s dreams of stardom seem even more far-fetched than Cory’s; ditto those of Kevin Gilger, a storage-unit supervisor attempting to corner a particularly niche market in impersonating Dog the Bounty Hunter. Neil Harley, a schlumpy would-be screenwriter from Las Vegas, is perhaps the most well-adjusted of a uniformly fragile bunch; the most affecting is middle-aged Carolan Pinto, who plans her aforementioned Oscar-night speech from the beaten-up car that has been her only home for years.
Woven in and around Cory’s more elaborately detailed tale of tragicomic woe, these character sketches don’t do much to further complicate the film’s already ambiguous thesis — though Patrick’s most amusing anecdote may unlock it to some extent. Before delivering his own wobbly audition monologue from his favorite film, “Forrest Gump,” he explains that he grew up believing Robert Zemeckis’ idiot-savant fantasy was a fact-based biopic — a misconception, he says, that “proves how powerful cinema can be.” Spinning off this innocent notion with considerably more cynicism, “California Dreams” itself asks whether one needs to know the “truth” of a story to be moved by it.