Based on the play of the same name by Caridad Svich, Jason Neulander’s Fugitive Dreams weaves a wandering tale of homelessness, addiction and mental illness in a dream-like depiction of rural America.
The films opens with Mary (April Matthis) wandering through empty fields, aimlessly walking towards a “city limits” sign — ironic as it is the middle of nowhere with no signs of habitation anywhere else — before finding refuge in an abandoned petrol station bathroom. Holding a piece of glass up to her wrist, she is about to press down when John (Robbie Tann) bursts in and shocks her from the moment of self-harm.
The polar opposite of Mary’s solemn composure, Tann inhabits the body of man who is constantly dealing with unspoken trauma, finding solace in other people and in his postcards depicting far away places he will never have the chance to visit. Mary — wary of his openness and energy, is initially annoyed by his presence and repeatedly shouts at him to leave her alone.
While riding in the box cart of a train that slowly winds its way cross country, they encounter fellow outcasts, the mother-and-son duo of Israfel and Providence (Scott Shepherd and O-Lan Jones respectively) who bring their own unnerving brand of weird to Mary and John’s relatively stable journey.
Sadly, that is where Fugitive Dreams loses its way. Aiming for an allegorical story about searching for home, the film then descends into an odd, nightmarish and overly long trip with whole sequences that not only don’t make sense, but also are incredibly jarring in their very construction.
The film is shot in black and white and this gives Mary and John’s travels a stark beauty, a clear juxtaposition that allows for some truly stunning images of the empty American countryside. However, when the film switches to colour mid-way through the film for an extended scene set in a wood, this beauty disappears completely. Not only is it visually disruptive, whatever narrative rhythm that had been allowed to build up is suddenly lost, as we are transported from this ‘old-fashioned’ world, to an interlude that frustrates rather than entertains.
This over the top tonal shift is not the last, sadly, and once Mary and John resume their wandering scenes move from comic to dramatic in the blink of an eye. It quickly becomes hard to understand or ever care too much about the characters when their very motivations become too caught up in this whirlwind of “Acting” that dominates the performances.
There is a Biblical undertone to Fugitive Dreams that is not explored, much to its detriment, and an interesting story fighting underneath the surface but sadly, it is instead a film that leaves you cold.
Fugitive Dreams enjoyed its World Premiere at the virtual edition of Fantasia Film Festival on August 31st, it is screening again on September 2nd
by Rose Dymock