Directed by Robert Wakamatsu
Starring Gian Shaw, Hannibal Thompson, Marcus D. Spencer, Ahku, and Yeena Fisher
Indie Film Review by James Burgess
The debut feature, by Robert Wakamatsu, The American Dream is an economical, if rather slight independent effort - an incongruous mixture of coming-of age dilemmas and conversational sparring. It tries so hard to be earnest and sincere, but it can’t decide whether to be a small-scale urban thriller, domestic drama, or even, occasionally - quite broad comedy.
Set in the world of American Football, the title - whilst all-encompassing, isn’t the only on-the-nose element of a script that’s more than a little obvious, and clichéd at times. Its thematic ideas of aspiration, redemption and the concept of following your dreams, are both universal and admirable. However, they’re ladled on with all the subtlety of the rather over-sentimentalised, intermittent throngs of score - again at very deliberate intervals - almost as if we’re told in a very signposted way - what we should be feeling at each predictable moment.
The setting of California looks impressive - all sunny coasts, sharply beguiling botany and speed-ramped, time-lapsed sunsets. It also acts as a good visual metaphor for the darker elements of what is by now a rather formulaic, tried-and-tested narrative structure: the glamorous, seductive quality of a particular part of the world, juxtaposed with the seediness of the dark underworld lurking underneath. The problem is that this supposed hidden threat, never feels threatening enough.
The acting is quite wooden, the tension almost entirely absent and the vast majority of characters are frequently written as simplistic caricatures, instead of being believably convincing enough, to be emotionally invested in. There’s the conflicted, put-upon protagonist (Gian Shaw, doing his best in a difficult role with weak material) - and as is customary with these almost inevitably drug-fuelled, local-gang crime chimeras - an imposing, bullish heavy (played by Ahku - one of the very few performances to actually make an - albeit diluted - impact). There’s also Hannibal Thompson’s hapless sidekick who’s primarily there for comic effect, but his endless one-liners and exaggerated facial expressions make the film unbalanced - they don’t gel with its far more serious undertones.
My favourite performance is from Yeena Fisher as the central character’s mother - who does succeed in making a lighter role work well. She’s the exasperated, relatable, persistent foil to all the stodginess of the convoluted plotting of The American Dream.
The early inclusion of a split-screen technique would’ve been inventive, had it not been discarded, and this tendency to tackle too many sudden changes in tone, becomes jarring after a while. Aesthetically pleasing and well intentioned, but otherwise frustratingly uneven.