Director: Jesse Salmeron
Starring: Jeremy Ray Valdez, Isabella Hofmann, Cory Knauf, Brit Sheridan
An achingly earnest immigration drama whose compelling low-budget artistic vision can’t save it from its overly programmatic dramatic roots and muddled assemblage, “Dreamer” is the sort of expressive indie film one wants to like and recommend more than one honestly does and can. A recent premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival, writer-director Jesse Salmeron’s movie is loosely in the mold of something like Chris Weitz’s well received “A Better Life,” from a couple years back — each film showcases the razor’s edge of life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, in which one simple accident or slip-up can send a hard-working but unfortunate person tumbling into criminal desperation and/or terrible moral compromise. The problem is, “Dreamer” isn’t as good, and poignant, as the macro story it’s telling.
Set in Houston, the film follows Joe Rodriguez (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a recent college graduate and successful, eager-to-please accountant whose slippery grasp on the American dream is shot when his new employer discovers his illegal status. Born Jose, in Mexico, Joe was more or less abandoned by his birth mother, but taken in and raised by the family who was her former employer. This gives Joe a step-brother, Dan (Cory Knauf), fresh out of rehab, and step-sister, Phoebe (Brit Sheridan) — both of whom he remains close with even though he’s now out of the house.
Already facing question from his company’s HR department over his lack of a verifiable Social Security number, Joe’s life takes a turn for the worse when he finds out his adoptive mom, Martha (Isabella Hofmann), who’s been under the thumb of his controlling Aunt Sarah (Jonna Juul-Hansen), is dying. Then he loses his driver’s license and debit card — his only two forms of identification — when a bartender returns them to the wrong customer.
“Dreamer” is rooted in the personal experiences of Salmeron, but his connection to the material clouds his judgment (he also serves as his own editor) when it comes to the movie’s construction, which plays more like a psychological drama. Some bits unfold in montage style with non-synched dialogue, which may represent an attempted stab at artfulness, but instead come across as a budgetary concession, and impinge mightily on character identification. Other narrative pivots in a story that already feels padded out to feature length hinge on flagrantly stupid bits (a bar owner flippantly claims no responsibility for losing Joe’s identification, and immediately summons security to bounce him).
This sort of mad rush to raise the stakes undermines the movie’s great potential for claustrophobic suffocation, and undoes an above-average technical package and vision. Cinematographer Francisco Bulgarelli imbues great feeling in his artful framing and shot selection, while composer Chris Neal’s music stirs great feelings of uncertainty (a nice title track, by Them Terribles, also plays over the closing credits). “Dreamer” is best when it’s ambling a bit; there’s a nice parallel sequence where Joe comes across an under-educated busboy, Victor (Abel Bacerra), whose plight somewhat echoes his. Salmeron, though, employs metaphorical framing devices in ham-handed fashion, and when the film dives headlong into familial bickering/intervention and resolution in its final reel, it comes across as at once pat and ill-conceived.
Valdez — who sort of looks like a Mexican Tedy Bruschi, and also serves as a producer on the movie — makes a solid impression as Joe; whereas many newcomers would punch out the more emotive lines, he underplays the film’s angst, in the process believably conveying the bottled-up nature of a young man who’s had to hug the shadows and sidelines of society. “Dreamer,” though, as an overall vehicle, contains far too much speechifying and misplaced energy.
NOTE: For more information, visit the movie’s Facebook page, at /dreamerfilm, or its complementary website, www.DreamerFilm.com.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.