The makers of “Dreamland” must have taken its title to heart. Jason Matzner’s woozily romantic, gorgeously lensed directorial debut about a trailer park love triangle seems to unspool in a dream of its own, and despite some sketchy story elements, much of it is pretty intoxicating — that is, until the unambiguous life lessons bring pic down to earth with an earnest splat. Accessible but dramatically mellow feature will have a tough time attracting more than an arid reception.
The title refers to both a small desert community of mobile homes in New Mexico and the suppressed passions of one of its loveliest residents. A recent high school grad, 18-year-old Audrey (Agnes Bruckner) spends most of her days working at the local mini-mart and taking care of her relatively young but sickly dad (John Corbett), who hasn’t left home since Audrey’s mother died.
Audrey also looks out for best friend Calista (Kelli Garner), whose beauty-queen aspirations are hindered by a debilitating illness, and has casual sex with friend and co-worker Abraham (Brian Klugman).
That’s a mouthful of issues, and rather than announce them upfront, Tom Willett’s script wisely starts from the outside and moves in, evoking a vivid and intimate sense of community in the process.
As shot in rich, warm oranges and cool nighttime blues by cinematographer Jonathan Sela, Dreamland could be the loveliest, most inviting trailer park on the planet. Yet because almost everything takes place out in the open, it’s also a place where secrets don’t keep for too long.
When former rock star Mary (Gina Gershon) and boyfriend Herb (Chris Mulkey) move into the neighborhood, Audrey immediately finds herself attracted to Mary’s basketball-playing (and therefore frequently bare-topped and sweaty) son, Mookie (Justin Long). Well aware of Calista’s longing for romance, however, Audrey impulsively sets them up on a date — a move that backfires emotionally when Calista and Mookie hook up, leaving her out in the cold.
That’s only one example of Audrey’s misguided sense of nobility. Out of love for the needy people of Dreamland, Audrey has turned down offers from multiple universities, shamefacedly hiding the admission letters under her bed (though to receive acceptances in the dead of summer after graduation feels somewhat implausible).
Scenario plays out at a leisurely, unforced pace and, despite a traumatic event that occurs halfway through, with a minimum of melodrama. Though he’s with Calista, Mookie returns Audrey’s feelings, resulting in a full-blown but realistically played triangle.
Pic’s spell is unfortunately broken by the over-emphatic conclusion. In addition, since there’s already poetry aplenty in Matzner’s style, the occasional attempts to visualize Audrey’s writing feel risible and unnecessary.
The gifted Bruckner, last seen bolstering the underrated slasher thriller “Venom,” is admirably down-to-earth in a way that neutralizes her character’s at times infuriating masochism, while Garner implodes heartbreakingly as the tragic beauty Calista.
Male performances, though less dominant, are equally understated and effective. Long, best known for gross-out comedies like “Dodgeball,” is hardly a classical heartthrob, yet the sensitivity of his performance bleeds into his character’s. Though he has to play weak and alcoholic, Corbett shows far more appeal and presence here than he did in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”