Despite the desperate familiarity road movies and teen travel dramas stemming from a “life is kinda rough where we are, so let’s just leave” attitude, director Ed Radtke’s “The Dream Catcher” emerges as a solid apprentice effort by a promising young filmmaker still on his learning curve. Radtke has coaxed a highly watchable lead performance from Maurice Compte (“NYPD Blue,” “Chicago Hope”) and, despite some glitches and pacing problems, the film has potential for continuing festival runs and limited theatrical release.
Story follows unsmiling, swarthy teen Freddy (Compte) hopping a freight train westbound from Philadelphia. He believes his uncle in Indiana might help him resolve financial hassles back home, where his girlfriend is pregnant. In Ohio, Freddy hooks up with Albert (Paddy Connor), a typically chatty juvenile more willing to steal than is Freddy, who, though also delinquent, is equipped with some hardwired morality. Radtke generally resists quick-cut shooting, allowing Compte to better anchor his character.
These are sympathetic kids struggling with the long-term effects of parental abandonment (The duo, for example inhale Cheech-and-Chong levels of marijuana). In Indiana, Freddy finds his uncle broke, so the teens jam to Oklahoma City to reunite Freddy with his disappeared ex-con father. Freddy’s eye-popping reality check with Dad is well framed, though dialogue volume needs boosting and Georgiana Gomez’s score should have been muted for a key sentence of dialogue.
This father-son climax centers “The Dream Catcher” so strongly that the remainder of the story seems like an afterthought. Freddy and Albert hit the Rocky Mountains, get beat up, bust into an Indian reservation church, hitchhike with an attractive divorced nurse (Jeanne Heaton) and in Nevada learn another painful truth, this one about Albert’s estranged mom.
After an hour or so, one questions the need for ongoing panoramic shots of the American West. Though this movie is infatuated with the road, Western landscapes and Depression-era nostalgia for riding the rails, it makes clear that such aimlessness provides no resolution to real problems back home.
The travelers receive intermittent blessings from religious people; the church’s caretaker plus a mixed-race Christian couple and a diner owner all display compassion. (Another Christian metaphor is that knocked-about Freddy comes across almost crucified at times — his father’s workshirt nametag reads “Joseph.”)
Pic needs tighter editing and stronger pacing, but has a strong asset in Compte. His permanently frowning Freddy is pained, trying to be a man after a meager childhood. Connor’s ultimately doomed Albert is good but limited, a Bevis or Butt-head minus Mike Judge’s writing. In supporting roles, Joseph Arthur, as Freddy’s pathetic dad, and Heaton’s liquored-up nurse shine.