You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Imperial Dreams’

John Boyega plays an ex-con reconnecting with his 4-year-old son in Malik Vitthal's nuanced directing debut.


John Boyega, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer, De'Aundre Bonds, Anika Noni Rose, Kellita Smith, Maximiliano Hernandez, Sufe Bradshaw, Nora Zehetner, Sylvester Carter, Earl Billings.

Inner-city life gets a more optimistic treatment than usual in “Imperial Dreams,” the bighearted yet surprisingly nuanced directorial debut of Malik Vitthal. Headlined by another confident and compelling turn from British rising star John Boyega (“Attack the Block”), the pic examines life in Watts, Los Angeles, through the eyes of a young aspiring writer searching for something more. The largely low-key drama doesn’t provide an easy marketing hook, but an enterprising distributor could help “Dreams” connect with supportive audiences.

Boyega’s inexplicably named Bambi (no one comments on it onscreen, since all the characters have known each other for years) returns to his hometown of Watts after 28 months in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. His top priority is reconnecting with 4-year-old son Day (twins Ethan and Justin Coach) who has been left in the care of Bambi’s thug uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) and drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith), after Bambi’s significant other, Samaara (Keke Palmer), wound up serving time herself for a non-violent crime.

Determined to turn his life around, Bambi faces numerous temptations to relapse into criminal life, from Shrimp offering him $4,000 to drive a shipment of drugs to Oregon, to Shrimp’s son Gideon (De’Aundre Bonds) showing up with a bullet in his arm, on the run from a rival gang and the police. An ostensibly more positive path to follow is represented by Bambi’s half-brother, Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho), who has landed a partial scholarship to Howard, where he plans to study business — if only he can raise enough capital to make the rest of tuition.

Vitthal, who co-wrote the script with Ismet Prcic, carefully lays out the numerous obstacles standing in the way of anyone trying to break out of a suffocating life of poverty. Even in his attempts to get a job to support himself and his son (and get his parole officer off his back), Bambi faces a bureaucratic nightmare of Orwellian proportions. He can’t find anything meaningful unless he has a driver’s license, but he can’t get a driver’s license unless he pays child support (which the government filed for on Samaara’s behalf). And he can’t pay off that debt unless he has a job. Similarly, he can’t move in with Wayne and his grandfather because their housing department won’t allow ex-cons or parolees to live on the premises.

The core of the film is the relationship between Bambi and Day, to the extent that when the pair find themselves unexpectedly homeless, the movie becomes a sort of inner-city “Pursuit of Happyness.” Boyega and the wonderfully naturalistic Coach twins prove remarkably credible at realizing the father-son bond. It’s clear that a big part of the reason Bambi wants to turn his life around is to be a better role model for his boy — he reads to him nightly, often from his own work. One of the film’s nicely underplayed horrors is just how frequently Day winds up witnessing adults engage in violent or criminal acts; since he’s generally presented as a happy-go-lucky kid, it’s all the more affecting when a gunshot startles Day awake one night and Bambi can’t quiet his son’s screams of terror.

For the most part, “Imperial Dreams” is so diligent about veering away from gang-movie cliches, it’s unfortunate that the few stumbles occur only when Vitthal ventures into that territory. When an attempted drive-by shooting morphs into a foot chase, the sequence feels like an unnecessary ploy to up the action content. But even in moments that don’t ring entirely true, Boyega’s grounded performance keeps the film headed in the right direction.

Vitthal only has a handful of short films to his credit (including several also set in Watts), but demonstrates a natural skill at handling a large cast of characters and getting the most out of shooting on location. The actual Imperial Courts Housing Community becomes another character in the film, alternating between a close-knit feeling of community and a frightening place where danger lurks around every corner. Monika Lenczewska’s lensing is especially effective in the dreamlike night sequences, when the entire neighborhood takes on an eerie, ethereal glow.

The other big plus in an all-around polished tech package is the offbeat rhythmic score by experimental rapper and musician Flying Lotus, who frequently composes for Adult Swim and here sets the tone for a film that has its feet firmly planted on the streets and its head in the clouds — dreaming of better days to come.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Imperial Dreams'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 17, 2014. Running time: 85 MIN.


A Super Crispy Entertainment presentation of a Jonathan Schwartz/Andrea Sperling production. Produced by Schwartz, Sperling, Katherine Fairfax Wright. Executive producers, Audrey Wilf, Zygi Wilf. Co-producer, Bobby Yay Yay Jones.


Directed by Malik Vitthal. Screenplay, Vitthal, Ismet Prcic. Camera (color, HD), Monika Lenczewska; editor, Suzanne Spangler; music, Flying Lotus; music supervisor, Tiffany Anders; production designer, Cecil Gentry; set decorators, Jane Madden, Chris Scheid; costume designer, Chasia; sound, Woody Stubblefield; supervising sound editor, Trip Brock; re-recording mixer, Kelly Vandever; special effects makeup, Geneva Nash Morgan; visual effects supervisor, Jonas Drehn, Matt Bramante; visual effects executive producer, Gresham Lochner; visual effects, BaconX, Locktix; line producer, Gingi Rochelle; associate producers, Doug Patterson, Fielder Jewett; assistant director, Jamar Hawkins; second unit camera, James David Wall; casting, Kim Coleman.


John Boyega, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer, De'Aundre Bonds, Anika Noni Rose, Kellita Smith, Maximiliano Hernandez, Sufe Bradshaw, Nora Zehetner, Sylvester Carter, Earl Billings.

More Film

  • Bob IgerSimon Weisenthal Gala honoring Bob

    Bob Iger Joins MasterClass Roster for Course on Business Strategy and Leadership

    Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger has signed on to the MasterClass digital education service, offering a course in business strategy and leadership. The course, available as of Thursday, will detail Iger’s view on the importance of taking bold steps and embracing mistakes in business. Iger also promises to dig into “case studies” of some of Disney’s [...]

  • Rambo Last Blood

    Amazon Lands ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Rambo: Last Blood’ for U.K. as Part of Lionsgate Output Deal

    Rambo, David Copperfield, and Daniel Craig are coming to Amazon Prime Video in the U.K. after the streamer struck an output deal with U.S. studio Lionsgate. The agreement hands Amazon U.K. streaming rights to Lionsgate’s theatrical titles, meaning the likes of Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” Gerard Butler-starrer “Angel Has Fallen,” London Film Festival opener “The [...]

  • Beverly Hills Cop

    'Beverly Hills Cop' Sequel With Eddie Murphy Moves to Netflix

    Netflix has nabbed the rights to make a sequel to “Beverly Hills Cop,” a move that deepens the relationship between the streaming giant and Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s new comedy “Dolemite is My Name” is currently showing on the platform, earning the actor some of the best reviews of his career. The film will see him [...]

  • IDFA: Tali Yankelevich’s 'My Darling Supermarket'

    IDFA: Tali Yankelevich’s 'My Darling Supermarket' Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to the trailer for Tali Yankelevich’s feature documentary “My Darling Supermarket,” which world premieres at IDFA. Yankelevich’s short “The Perfect Fit” won SXSW’s Global Shorts Grand Jury Award, and was shortlisted for the Oscars. “My Darling Supermarket,” Yankelevich’s feature debut, focuses on the lives of supermarket workers, who in the [...]

  • Lucia-Puenzo-Julio-Hernandez-Cordón-and-Asier-Altuna

    Ventana Sur Announces 16 Projects for Second Proyecta Showcase

    Last year, Argentina’s Ventana Sur film and TV market and co-production forum launched its inaugural Proyecta feature project showcase. Co-organized by Ventana Sur and the San Sebastian Film Festival, Proyecta was established to aid in facilitation of international co-productions between Europe and Latin America. 16 feature film projects will participate this year, four of which [...]

  • Radioflash

    Film Review: 'Radioflash'

    It’s the end of the world and they know it in “Radioflash,” a neither-fish-nor-fowl tale of survival after a massive, seemingly permanent power failure. At first this seems a fairly straightforward “what if” scenario of one family’s coping with the rapid breakdown of society in an unprecedented emergency. But first-time feature director/co-writer Ben McPherson eventually [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content