REVIEW: Fugitive Dreams (MANIFF 2021)
It’s hard to accurately summarise Jason Neulander’s Fugitive Dreams. On the one hand, watching the film is like being thrown into a surreal, Kaufman-esque, tripped out, biblical fever dream. On the other hand, (as its synopsis states) it’s a road trip through rural Americana, with two lost souls united by mental health trauma, homelessness and addiction, looking for peace and salvation. There’s something ‘there’ bubbling beneath the surface, something that alludes to poignancy and substance. But you have to work hard for it to make some coherent sense.
Based on the stage play of the same name, it places its audiences in a constant state of discombobulation. Funnily enough, it’s a feeling you wouldn’t necessarily think of in that way, judging by its beginnings. From the outset, we’re introduced to Mary (April Matthis), wandering through fields in the middle of nowhere (a notable theme throughout). After finding some essence of civilisation (as in the bathroom of a petrol station), she’s on the verge of committing suicide, before the haphazardness of a stranger named John (Robbie Tann) inadvertently stops her from doing something permanent.
It’s unconventional and somewhat triggering, and yet Fugitive Dreams swiftly transforms itself into a co-dependant dynamic of opposites attract. John is very talkative, annoying and desperately clingy. Mary, blunt with every exchange, wants nothing to do with him. But this is where the film operates at its best, with its leading characters bouncing off each other with back-and-forth exchanges and stand-offish bickering that exemplifies their experiences of the world. At its basic level, they are two worlds colliding. At its most complex, they’re chipping away at their various walls and barriers to get to the centre of their truth. But at its heart, they’re carrying the scars (be it physically or mentally) of torment, needing each other to ride out the storm. And there’s nothing more poignant and relevant when those conversations chart into the topical.
That feeling becomes prominent when the conversation converges on police brutality, for example. John optimistically views police officers as godly with the “acts of kindness” in their brutality. You immediately sense Mary’s discomfort and pain, knowing the other side of that story. And when she shows off her scars (and subsequently slaps him), her stance is fundamentally clear. “I like the bible fine”, she tells him, “I just don’t like the men preaching it.” It’s such a nuanced response it carries a multitude of layers that not even this review has time to delve into.
But from what could have been a deep-dive and intimate journey into opposites finding salvation, the film begins to take some chaotic and baffling wild turns. They encounter Israfel (Scott Shepherd) and Providence (O-Lan Jones), travellers onboard Mary and John’s train journey. It’s at this point where the film rapidly dials up the surreal, as the plot randomly jumping from place to place and the dialogue becoming sketchier and abstract the longer it goes on. That confusion is further heightened by the introduction of David Patrick Kelly’s Henri Gatien. If anything, Fugitive Dreams lives up to its title as you question what is real or not.
But there’s no question that Naulander’s film descends into a series of missed opportunities to delve deeper into Mary and John’s troubling psychosis. Mary’s trauma is at the expense of the evils of the world that have driven her to the point of suicide. John’s troubles are closer to home, suffering abuses at the hands of his family. Most of these moments are brought to the surface through either delusional manifestations or flashback memories, trapped within its feverish dream. But the longer it moves forward, unguided and off-track, the more it loses momentum to build a poignant statement about its characters. And whatever period it does try to reconcile with its traumas, it all too brief for it to be satisfying.
With a plot riddled with religious allegories, the purgatory landscape is an element that is not lost on its audience. As if it was ripped from HBO’s The Leftovers, it’s a world ravaged by God’s rapture, leaving the abandoned, condemned and punishable to fight for whatever is left in its desolate and post-apocalyptic reality. It doesn’t offer any more information besides what is given. It is as strange from the outset and carries that through to its end. But the engagement level is still high enough to keep a degree of investment.
But it’s quite fascinating to know how Fugitive Dreams worked originally as a stage play. If there is one captivating thing that is consistent, then it’s Naulander’s sprawling direction. It’s hard to envision a concept without the beautiful capture of its black and white cinematography. In some ways, the film evokes our love affair with cinema, with its ability to disappear into seemingly boundless worlds. Using John as the ‘cinematic avatar’ for a peaceful utopia and escapism channels that essence brilliantly. As a homage to The Wizard of Oz, the film plays around with its concept, filmed stylistically and beautifully in 4×3 before those dashes of colour appear on the screen.
Fugitive Dreams is not a film for everyone. The complete daze it operates in is otherworldly. Most often, it can be confused about what exactly it wants to leave its audiences with. But somehow, within its quaint idealism of hope and rebirth, the human drama that’s its occasionally filled with (in amongst the surrealism) propels itself to where it matters.