Movie Review: ‘DEAR DICTATOR’ rises to the occasion, but stumbles in its delivery

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

DEAR DICTATOR

Not rated, 90 minutes.
Director: Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse
Cast: Odeya RushMichael CaineKatie HolmesSeth Green and Jason Biggs

It’s not a huge secret that growing up as a teenager can be drastically difficult in certain situations or cultures. It’s also not a secret that Hollywood loves to churn out tales of misguided youth or those going against the grain to achieve self-worth. Sometimes, it can be a huge hit, like LADY BIRD or the high school works of John Hughes. In fact, there have been so many high school movies that it can be considered its own genre, as evidenced by Robert Bulman’s work HOLLYWOOD GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.

One of the newer entries to this genre/subgenre is DEAR DICTATOR. Coming from a blacklisted script written during the Bush administration, the film focuses on high schooler Tatiana (Odeya Rush) as she wades through the existential crisis that is her teenage life. When her teacher (Jason Biggs) assigns them to write to a person that inspires them. She writes to known dictator Anton Vincent (Michael Caine) and they become pen pals. Only when his country attempts to overthrow him, he flees to the U.S. to hideout in her garage.

The movie definitely brings a message of rebellion, with the opening credits establishing a punk rock vibe as The Circle Jerks’ “Coup D’état” blasts away. Tatiana likes to be a rebel, wearing the classic motif of army jackets, jack boots, and shocking everyone that represents oppression, like her teachers or the popular girls known as Slushes.

However, the movie takes an interesting swerve as Anton enters her home, as he uses tactics on her behalf that makes her be seen as an oppressor. The American romanticism of certain historical figures coming to a harsh reality when realizing their heroes are monsters.

Michael Caine and Odeya Rush star in ‘DEAR DICTATOR.’ Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment Group.

Unfortunately, DEAR DICTATOR tends to veer off course throughout the movie. Written and directed by the husband and wife team of Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, the story never really goes full-on satire, and, by the time the third act starts, it plays everything a little too safe. They give everyone some sort of redemption, killing the sort of dark humor that would be the exclamation point.

Much like Tatiana, it can be too on the nose with trying to be individualistic, such as a weird throwaway side story with her mom’s (Katie Holmes) affair with her odd boss (Seth Green) that made the story fall flat within the first 20 minutes. There is already something individual about the story, there just needs to be better execution. It’s a very interesting premise, the main character is a female who isn’t making decisions based on puppy love, and who doesn’t love Michael Caine?

As Bulman said in his book, “A bit of independence, nonconformity, and rebellion is seen as healthy for the developing middle-class adolescent.” DEAR DICTATOR certainly promotes this stance, but it does have a confusing identity crisis. It’s oddly endearing, but doesn’t adhere to the punk rock vibe. To paraphrase Refused, it’s better to be forgotten, than remembered for giving in.

[GRADE: C]

DEAR DICTATOR opens Friday (3/16) in select markets, and will also release on Video On Demand. Check your local listings.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.