Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.
To those whose Italian is rusty, this proverb translates to “To the unhappy, it is a comfort to have had company in misery.” Simplified further, “Misery loves company.”
FUGITIVE DREAMS, a film whose cinematography deserves to be seen on the biggest screens possible, is a small work about two individuals navigating through the chaotic morass of life. (Or, it could be the afterlife, or maybe somewhere in between – I’m not entirely sure.) One is seeking closure, likely with a sharp object. The other seems moderately content, though uncomfortable in his own skin. Both are vagabonds running from their pasts to an unknown destination.
Director Jason Neulander immediately draws our attention with a colorful poppy field as the opening credits play. Then, like a finger snap, the world turns monochrome. A woman is wandering aimlessly when she picks up a shard of glass. Cutting across a field, she finds a mom-and-pop gas station with a restroom on the side. Before she can slit her wrist, a man frantically rushes in, needing to use it. She leaves offended and frustrated, and he follows after like a puppy dog yapping at her heels. Yapping, because he’s a talker with a busted on-off switch.
That is our introduction to Mary (April Matthis) and John (Robbie Tann), two people who could personify most of us in a very turbulent 2020. Though the film is based on Caridad Svich’s 2000 play “Fugitive Kinds,” its characters, themes, and overall sentiment can be felt today.
Like Mary and John, we are scared and feel hopeless about what’s happening; we’re also trapped, clinging to memories when we were full of life, pushing away thoughts of the emptiness that lies ahead. Mary is ready to stop and end it all, while John is guided by his own idealism, saying that he’s “going to the place where all the bits of the world come all together at once.” His world is full of Technicolor, where the images cascade onto 20-foot high walls, like something out of a drive-in theatre. Mary’s is a polaroid picture in reverse, ending in black.
Two complete opposites are drawn together, both running from traumas. Mary’s lacerated scars are evidence of the physical evil that exists. John’s suppression of abuse is him feigning emotional stability. The reasons behind each’s suffering is projected in flashbacks when both were younger and more susceptible to committing petty larceny out of necessity. More often than not, the Marys and Johns of the world, we cast away with apathy instead of showering empathy should they cross our paths. They battle together with the ills that we can’t confront alone.
The power of FUGITIVE DREAMS is that it remains ambiguous in its meaning. Mary and John’s journey isn’t a stroll through a meadow; their passage is a cruel road from perdition. Sadly, most viewers are likely to lose interest long before Mary and John make it to the end. One of the inherent drawbacks in adapting a stage play to the screen is taking a dialogue-heavy work and making it work cinematically.
Neulander, who previously directed the stage version back in 2002, manages to carry interest with Peter Simonite’s deep black-and-white visuals and strong performances by Matthis and Tann. But religious iconography and the arrivals of Israfel (Scott Shepherd), Providence (O-Lan Jones), and Henri (David Patrick Kelly) – three characters that comprise a collective of devil’s advocates – may be too much for the casual audience.
That’s too bad because Svich has written a beautiful allegory that addresses many afflictions without calling them out. Mary and John are the ciphers: abandoned and left to care for themselves. Now, they are being punished for what’s asked of them. It’s no wonder why Mary would find suicide a painless ending or why John would rather have his imagination distract him. Both are a means of escape, though a difficult road to travel.
FUGITIVE DREAMS is like that, too — a mesmerizing intersection of dreams and landscapes and finding empathy in the forgotten. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it will provoke thoughts and conversations to those who keep an open mind.
FUGITIVE DREAMS made its world premiere as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival on August 31, 2020. It will make its U.S. premiere as part of the Austin Film Festival (running Oct. 22-29).