Review by Sean Boelman
Jason Neulander’s road movie Fugitive Dreams is arguably one of the most ambitious yet understated feature debuts in recent memory. And although it bites off a bit more than it can chew, losing track of some of its themes in the process, it’s a gorgeous and poetic film coming from a distinct and authentic voice.
Adapted by Neulander and Caridad Svich from a play by Svich, the movie follows two homeless people as they travel across the country stowing away on trains, encountering an eclectic bunch of lost souls along the way. One of the great things about this genre is that, while the basic beats are the same, filmmakers can do something drastically different with those beats to make something refreshing and original, and that’s exactly what Neulander and Svich do.
The movie’s origins as a play are evident, as its biggest strength is undeniably its dialogue. Sharp, insightful, and sometimes tinged with subtle humor, the way in which the dialogue flows is integral in pacing the film. Despite a somewhat episodic structure, the movie feels wonderfully cohesive nevertheless.
That said, unlike what is the case with most films that are adapted from the stage, Neulander actually does something with the cinematic form here. Shot mostly in black-and-white, but with some bursts of color for symbolic effect, it’s a gorgeous movie, and there’s almost as much (if not more) to deconstruct in the stylistic elements as the narrative.
Where the film starts to fall apart is in its attempt to juggle so many themes. Obviously, the movie has a lot to say about the homelessness crisis in America, and it’s heartbreaking and effectively-delivered. On the other hand, the explorations of addiction and trauma aren’t as well-developed.
Viewers will likely also be left wanting more from the dynamic between the two lead characters. The friendship that forms between them is definitely interesting, but the addition of other players into the equation distracts from the matter at hand. The best moments are those which let the two characters sit with each other.
April Matthis and Robbie Tann are great together. Both bring a lot of humanity and empathy to their roles, especially Tann, whose character treads a fine line of potentially being problematic had the performance been too over-the-top. But their chemistry absolutely lights up the screen and creates that naturalistic feel that is so needed.
There are a few things about Fugitive Dreams that don’t work quite as well as one would hope, but it delivers on much of its potential. This is one of those multi-layered films that almost demands a rewatch to pick up on all of its nuances.
Fugitive Dreams screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.