Alas that the most interesting thing about Mean Dreams is that it is the second-to-last performance from Bill Paxton that we will ever get, and a doozy of a performance at that. (Paxton will also appear in The Circle, opening wide in the US in April, which I have not yet seen; I don’t think any critics have.) Alas for Paxton fans (I am a huge one); alas for The Movies, which will no longer enjoy the understated appeal of his solid presence; and alas for this particular movie, that he makes the rest of it look just that tiniest bit shabbier by comparison. Mean Dreams wants to be a coming-of-age thriller — perhaps the first entry in a new subgenre? — but its teen romance is tepid under the nicely tender tentativeness, and the thriller aspect is rather implausible.
Oh, sure, we get why 15-year-old Casey (Sophie Nélisse: The Great Gilly Hopkins, Pawn Sacrifice) desperately wants to escape from her father, small-town sheriff Wayne: Paxton (Nightcrawler, Edge of Tomorrow) imbues him with a subtle undercurrent of menace from his first moment onscreen, in a seemingly mundane breakfast scene, and then he gets so much worse from there; there is genuine power, and something deeply disturbing, in seeing an actor who had built his onscreen persona on honest, ordinary agreeableness being such a reprehensible shit onscreen. Nélisse too, one of the most intriguing young actresses working now, conveys so very well a fear that is palpable and yet which she must keep subdued lest, we understand, it enrages him. It’s the form her escape takes, with the help of neighboring farmboy Jonas (Josh Wiggins: Max, Hellion), also 15, that never rings true: it requires an accidental discovery by Jonas of criminal misdeeds on Wayne’s part, as he abuses his law-enforcement authority, one that it’s difficult to imagine Wayne could get away with.
I suspect that Canadian filmmaker Nathan Morlando, in his second feature, and screenwriters Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby are attempting to explore, in what comes next, the poignant disconnect between feeling like you’re all grown up, at 15, and the reality that you are still hopelessly naive. The underpowered script doesn’t quite know how to handle that, though Morlando’s navigation of Casey and Jonas’s journey does create an effective sense that there’s no place to hide in the middle of nowhere. (The film was shot in rural Ontario, but it could be taking place almost anywhere remote and lonely.) Still, while Paxton’s performance isn’t the only redeeming factor here, it’s the biggest one, and he makes the film well worth a look.