Following kids on the lam with a bag of loot, Nathan Morlando’s “Mean Dreams” combines a poetic tale of backwoods crime with first-rate performances, breaking no rules but following some familiar ones to a satisfying degree. Writer-director Morlando’s second feature (after 2011’s “Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster”) hails from the Terrence Malick playbook of alienated souls roaming about gorgeous natural scenery — specifically, it calls to mind “Badlands” — while adhering to a simpler set of dramatic circumstances, and hitting some agreeable notes in the process.
Morlando’s ace in the hole is his first-rate cast, which includes a terrific villainous turn by Bill Paxton, but mainly relies on rising star Josh Wiggins (“Max”) as 15-year-old Jonas, who falls in love with his next-door neighbor and decides to rescue her from her downtrodden existence in rural New York. The good-natured Casey (Sophie Nélisse, “The Book Thief”) catches Jonas’ eye when her family arrives in the provincial town as she immediately latches on to a kindred spirit her own age. Their relationship develops quickly — perhaps a bit too quickly — but given the circumstances, it comes as no great surprise: Wandering the golden fields surrounding their properties, it’s almost as though they’re the only people on the planet.
But the reality is far bleaker than that. Casey lives under the oppressive control of her police officer father Wayne (Paxton), a hard-drinking, abusive single parent who immediately recoils from Josh’s interest in his daughter. It doesn’t take long for Jonas to valiantly step into hero mode and defend his new companion, but it turns out he has underestimated the threat at hand. Smacked around and threatened by the officer as well as his superior, Jonas initially tries diplomacy to rescue Casey from her dad’s iron grip. When that fails, he resorts to more devious methods, inadvertently discovering a criminal scheme involving the local law enforcement; in short order, he’s dashing into the forest with a briefcase full of stolen cash and a frantic Casey by his side.
Gorgeously shot with roving camerawork by Steve Cosens (“Born to Be Blue”), “Mean Dreams” has been described by its director as “Northern Gothic,” an apt label for a movie that transforms Malick’s lyricism into thriller material — in much the same way that David Gordon Green did with “Undertow.” Venturing deep into the expansive woods, Jonas and Casey feud over their next steps, uncertain if they actually have a plan aside from escaping their dreary world for something better.
The script, by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby, remains smartly within its young protagonists’ limited world. As they bicker about whey they need to resort to violence — a couple of bloody showdowns leave them no choice — and dream about a better future, they never speak beyond their years, nor does their chemistry come across as anything but wholly believable. Both young actors exhibit a formidable degree of understatement that makes the hackneyed twists — stolen goods, relentless bad guys, and motel room hideaways — more palatable than the usual routine.
It’s Paxton, however, who injects “Mean Dreams” with a palpable sense of menace. Scowling at Jonas whenever he catches up to him, and grinning just as creepily when he takes control, he’s a terrific embodiment of the harsh world holding the film’s central characters down at every turn. He’s aided in that task by the movie’s delicate cinematography, which oscillates from copper-tinted outdoor scenery to shadowy nighttime exchanges that oscillate from warmth to utter dread.
The pervasive elegance makes up for a largely derivate plot. We’ve seen variations on this story before, and “Mean Dreams” doesn’t do much to shake up expectations — until, that is, a violent finale that punctuates the characters’ psychological development. Ultimately, “Mean Dreams” has less to do with the nature of family bonds than the brutal experience of tearing them apart.
“Mean Dreams” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.