Inner-city life gets a more optimistic treatment than usual in "Imperial Dreams," the bighearted yet surprisingly nuanced directorial debut of Malik Vitthal. Headlined by another confident and compelling turn from British rising star John Boyega ("Attack the Block"), the pic examines life in Watts, Los Angeles, through the eyes of a young aspiring writer searching for something more. The largely low-key drama doesn't provide an easy marketing hook, but an enterprising distributor could help "Dreams" connect with supportive audiences.
Boyega's inexplicably named Bambi (no one comments on it onscreen, since all the characters have known each other for years) returns to his hometown of Watts after 28 months in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. His top priority is reconnecting with 4-year-old son Day (twins Ethan and Justin Coach) who has been left in the care of Bambi's thug uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) and drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith), after Bambi's significant other, Samaara (Keke Palmer), wound up serving time herself for a non-violent crime.
Determined to turn his life around, Bambi faces numerous temptations to relapse into criminal life, from Shrimp offering him $4,000 to drive a shipment of drugs to Oregon, to Shrimp's son Gideon (De'Aundre Bonds) showing up with a bullet in his arm, on the run from a rival gang and the police. An ostensibly more positive path to follow is represented by Bambi's half-brother, Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho), who has landed a partial scholarship to Howard, where he plans to study business -- if only he can raise enough capital to make the rest of tuition.
Vitthal, who co-wrote the script with Ismet Prcic, carefully lays out the numerous obstacles standing in the way of anyone trying to break out of a suffocating life of poverty. Even in his attempts to get a job to support himself and his son (and get his parole officer off his back), Bambi faces a bureaucratic nightmare of Orwellian proportions. He can't find anything meaningful unless he has a driver's license, but he can't get a driver's license unless he pays child support (which the government filed for on Samaara's behalf). And he can't pay off that debt unless he has a job. Similarly, he can't move in with Wayne and his grandfather because their housing department won't allow ex-cons or parolees to live on the premises.
The core of the film is the relationship between Bambi and Day, to the extent that when the pair find themselves unexpectedly homeless, the movie becomes a sort of inner-city "Pursuit of Happyness." Boyega and the wonderfully naturalistic Coach twins prove remarkably credible at realizing the father-son bond. It's clear that a big part of the reason Bambi wants to turn his life around is to be a better role model for his boy -- he reads to him nightly, often from his own work. One of the film's nicely underplayed horrors is just how frequently Day winds up witnessing adults engage in violent or criminal acts; since he's generally presented as a happy-go-lucky kid, it's all the more affecting when a gunshot startles Day awake one night and Bambi can't quiet his son's screams of terror.
For the most part, "Imperial Dreams" is so diligent about veering away from gang-movie cliches, it's unfortunate that the few stumbles occur only when Vitthal ventures into that territory. When an attempted drive-by shooting morphs into a foot chase, the sequence feels like an unnecessary ploy to up the action content. But even in moments that don't ring entirely true, Boyega's grounded performance keeps the film headed in the right direction.
Vitthal only has a handful of short films to his credit (including several also set in Watts), but demonstrates a natural skill at handling a large cast of characters and getting the most out of shooting on location. The actual Imperial Courts Housing Community becomes another character in the film, alternating between a close-knit feeling of community and a frightening place where danger lurks around every corner. Monika Lenczewska's lensing is especially effective in the dreamlike night sequences, when the entire neighborhood takes on an eerie, ethereal glow.
The other big plus in an all-around polished tech package is the offbeat rhythmic score by experimental rapper and musician Flying Lotus, who frequently composes for Adult Swim and here sets the tone for a film that has its feet firmly planted on the streets and its head in the clouds -- dreaming of better days to come.
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