“Life’s handed me a couple of crap popsicles lately.”
For those of us who grew up in the ’80s on a steady diet of MTV, Whit Hertford was the kid who starred in the video for the Ratt song “Lay It Down.” These days that kid is all grown up, and seems to have escaped the dark path that has befallen other child actors. Not only is he still working in the business, he is also the star and one of the writers of the film Dreamworld, as well as the co-founder of Sneak Attack, the company behind the film. He and partner Ryan Darst, who also directed the movie, have stated on their website that they are on a mission to “embrace improvisation principles in both performance and execution to allow for genuine moments that sharpen focus & relatability.” However, Dreamworld doesn’t quite live up to the high bar that Hertford and Darst desire, while the improvisational aspects of the film does give the dialogue a sense of realism, it is also the Achilles heel that drags the film down in parts, and shows in stark detail those that can handle the free flowing style and those who can’t.
Oliver Hayes (Whit Hertford, Jurassic Park) has big dreams: he wants to be an animator for Pixar. Problem is, Oliver hasn’t been able to let go of the safety of his life and job in order to pursue his dream. That is until Lily Blush (Mary Kate Wiles) enters his life. This beautiful, impulsive woman appears to be genuinely attracted to the insecure Oliver, and convinces him that he should go with her to San Francisco, where she coincidentally has a friend who works at Pixar. Even though best friend Jules (Nora Kirkpatrick, The Office) warns Oliver that Lily is as mad as a hatter, he embarks on the trek from Los Angeles to Northern California anyway, and discovers the difference between dreams that can come to fruition and those that are mere fantasy.
Dreamworld is an ambitious project that doesn’t quite hit its mark. It is an improvisational film that works in several places, but some key elements prevent it from being brilliant. Unfortunately its main problem is the chemistry between the two leads: Hertford and Wiles. A good majority of the film chronicles their characters’ trip to San Francisco, but their lack of cohesiveness drags down an otherwise fine film.
Hertford is great as Oliver, with expressive eyes, a sharp wit, and a self-deprecating charm that makes him an endearing character. He is by all standards an unconventional leading man, but a convincing one nonetheless. Standing a mere 5′ 2″ tall, he isn’t the usual hulking muscular brute we expect from a romantic lead, but he is a joy to watch. His sense of humor and the honesty in his writing suits the insecure Oliver, who doesn’t believe in his own abilities. However, Wiles is unable to hold her own alongside Hertford. Her performance feels forced and chaotic, not just because her character is a hot mess, but because her improvisational skills don’t appear to be as refined as Hertford’s are.
However, I still recommend Dreamworld not only because of Hertford’s great performance, but three other very compelling reasons:
First is Oliver’s best friend Jules, played by Nora Kirkpatrick. They are old friends trying to make it in the animated art world. Jules is the level headed dreamer, while Oliver is afraid to take risks. These two actors just click, their banter feels real, as if they are indeed old friends chatting and a camera just happens to be capturing it all for posterity. Kirkpatrick is equally at home in her role, and comfortable on screen. Nothing feels made up about Jules, she acts like a real person concerned about a friend who’s gone all gaga over a woman he barely knows. Unfortunately, their onscreen time together isn’t long enough, they leave you wanting more because they are far more interesting together than Oliver and Lily.
Reason number two is the delightful performance from Matt Jones, best known for playing Jessie’s drug addled friend Badger in the series Breaking Bad. In this film he is Ben, Oliver’s grade school bully. And when Oliver and Lily pass through Ben’s hometown, Lily convinces Oliver to face his fears and meet with the person who tormented in his school years. In a wonderfully awkward moment, when predator meets prey, we see the hint of brilliance by Hertford and co-writer Robert J. Gibbs that this makes this film worth supporting. Oliver and Ben are quiet at first, shifting back and forth after they painfully exchange small talk. Finally, after looking as if he has something to say, Ben offers a sweet yet clumsy apology for the way he treated the much smaller Oliver in school. Once that’s out of the way, they both become visibly more relaxed and you get the feeling that a friendship might blossom between these two former adversaries.
Throughout the film we see aspects of Lily that cause us to question not only her intentions, but her mental health as well. When she and Oliver finally arrive in San Francisco, he realizes that she isn’t the girl of his dreams, but a confused woman who uses men depending on what personality she happens to be showing at the time. Oliver discovers that before him, she dated Colin (Matt Bush, Adventureland), the ‘friend’ who supposedly works at Pixar. Not only is the Pixar story bogus, but Lily still seems to have feelings for her old flame. This final realization brings Oliver out of his lustful haze, ripping apart the fragile dream world they both created on their impromptu cross state trip.
This leads to the third reason you need to see Dreamworld: Colin and his roommate Richard (Johnny Pemberton, 21 Jump Street), a gamer who never looks away from his gaming consul, but delivers some of the funniest lines in the film. If that stuff is improvised than Pemberton is a genius. Colin and Richard are hilarious, and immediately form a bond with Oliver knowing the hurt Lily caused him, because she also hurt Colin in the very same way. Two more excellent performances that truly make you believe these twenty-something guys live in a small apartment while one plays video games, and the other is a wannabe animator who still pines away for Lily. Surprisingly enough, Colin and Richard are pivotal in helping Oliver realize that the courage he thought Lily gave him was something he possessed all along.
This 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen presentation of Dreamworld (Blu-ray) is at times gritty and grainy, a nice contrast to the bright lighting and sharp colors of the dreamlike trip to San Francisco Oliver takes with Lily. If Ray Dolby were still alive though, he might want to slap the sound tech on this one, because the soundtrack is ridiculously loud, and often times overpowers the dialogue. So much so, I had to keep the remote close by so I wouldn’t have a heart attack when the music would suddenly burst onto the scene after I turned the volume up to a million just so I could hear what was being said. At times it sounded as if the actors weren’t even miked; when the ocean sounds are louder than the dialogue, you’ve got yourself some big problems.
The extras on this Blu-ray release are fantastic, due to the three great shorts that are included. The Long Short Story is about Fisher and Georgia, two improv actors who meet and develop a friendship with the potential of becoming much more. It stars Hertford and Kirkpatrick, who again show what incredible chemistry they have together. Elliot is the story of Graham, a man grieving after his girlfriend Audrey dies. To cope with her loss, he begins taking care of an imaginary dog named Elliot, the name Audrey wanted to use if they ever got a pet. Starring Hertford and Wiles, whose performance is much better than the one she gives as Lily in Dreamworld. The final short is called Tomorrow. It stars Hertford as a writer named Miles who writes screenplays about women who fall head over heels in love with him, in order to escape his loveless relationship. These three shorts are tightly written, with well-developed characters, and live up to the standards in the mission statement on the Sneak Attack website: “To unify a story and its audience.” The remaining extras include filmmaker commentary, Oliver and Lily’s blog, artwork and photos, and an animated short.
Although I didn’t care for the overall film, there are enough good pieces in Dreamworld to recommend it to you, dear reader. Whit Hertford is a fine actor and his performance alone brought this film to life. He and his Sneak Attack partner have the potential to be big players in an entertainment industry that needs a fresh take on an old medium.
By the power vested in me by something or other, I bestow upon this film a full acquittal.
2014, Sneak Attack Films, 93 minutes, NR (2014)
VIDEO: 1.78:1 (1080p) AUDIO: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English) SUBTITLES: English (SDH), French, Spanish
EXTRAS: Commentary, Short Films, Gallery, Blog ACCOMPLICES: IMDB