Director: Malik Vitthal
Starring: John Boyega, Justin Coach, Ethan Coach, Rotimi Akinosho, Keke Palmer, Glenn Plummer, De’Aundre Bonds, Sufe Bradshaw, Nora Zehetner, Maximiliano Hernández
“Your heart says, ‘Don’t kill’. The hood says, ‘Kill’.”
Watts, Los Angeles is the backdrop for Malik Vitthal’s stark drama, Imperial Dreams, in which a recently paroled young black man attempts to integrate himself back into a society that is seemingly designed to prevent just that, whilst also trying to raise his young son in the bleakness. Staying on the right path is the easy part, it’s the mountain of precarious obstacles that’s the crushing issue.
Free from incarceration, wannabe-poet Bambi (Boyega) is determined to get his life on track and provide a better life for his four-year-old son, Day (Justin and Ethan Coach). Bambi’s Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) provides a quick and easy way to earn some good money – illegally trafficking drugs across state lines. Bambi refuses, but his efforts to obtain employment and cash are hampered by the fact he hasn’t got a driver’s license. The DMV inform him he can’t get a license unless he pays off the $15,000 child support the government filed whilst he was in jail. So, how does that work? Additionally, he can’t move in with his (more successful) brother Wayne (Akinosho) as the state doesn’t allow ex-cons to take up residence on their premises. Sleeping in a car – with towels across the window – each night, Bambi struggles to reconcile the predicament he and Day find themselves in. Unfortunately for him, child services are doing that work for him, and with gangs rife across the estate, Bambi has to use all of his resolve to keep the pair of them safe.
Grounded, understated and sharp, Imperial Dreams provides a clear statement on the issues facing ex-cons and their integration back into society, the baffling hindrances they face, policing attitudes and the ever-so-near danger of re-offending. Malik Vitthal’s impressive debut is bleak and immersive in its depiction of the struggles, the streets and the danger around every corner. Shot on the Imperial Courts, Watts, LA, the movie has an almost documentary feel to it at times due to the authentic presentation. The Courts themselves are ominously shot, large buildings overlook discreet corners where something unsavoury generally lurks. There’s a filtered look to the day scenes, as if even the sun is struggling to uplift the predicament. At night, the dusky lighting only adds to the underlying fear of the unseen.
John Boyega shines in the lead role as the resolute, caring Bambi. Embodying the internal and external struggles, he sells the performance credibly and the natural chemistry with the Coach twins, as Day, is affectingly well delivered. The talented supporting cast all ably supports Boyega’s efforts, including a menacing turn from Glenn Plummer as the crooked Uncle Shrimp.
With a snug runtime (86 minutes), Imperial Dreams doesn’t have time to allow its story to drag or become over-saturated. It does at times feels too fast, as major plot points race by as the next one begins, however, whilst occasionally being problematic, it seemed to add to the urgency and growing sense of chaos that was unfolding. It’s well-written also for the vast majority, Boyega given some fantastic soliloquies to narrate the deeper issues at stake and they’re almost poetic in their excellence. Counter to that, at times his dialogue is expository and unnecessarily so, as the performances or scene aptly describes/presents the situation. Vitthal does well to generally avoid the gang cliché that suffocates similar movies, though when the moments do creep in, they generally feel at odds with the rest of the move tonally (the drive-by being the key example).
Imperial Dreams succeeds when it remains a deep character study with Bambi circumventing the bureaucratic jungle, the tense, fraught relationship with his family and his warm relationship with his son. It’s the latter that provides the heart and soul of the movie, making every bump in the road more aching as Day is exposed to rejection and street violence on a daily basis.
As debuts go, Imperial Dreams is a solid effort. It’s well-written, well-shot and well-acted, with Boyega again proving he has a bright future ahead of him. Whilst not spectacular, it’s hard-hitting, affecting and well worth your time.
November 11th 2017