Sundance 2014 Review: IMPERIAL DREAMS Is A Taut, Effective Social Drama

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
About two-thirds the way through Malik Vitthal's remarkable film, the lead character makes it plain - he's just trying "to do the right thing."

Back in 1989, another African American filmmaker showed how doing the right thing wasn't always easy. Spike's joint was a technicolor dream, a Public Enemy-fueled romp through one volcanically hot day in Bed-Stuy. Vitthal's story is far less fable, and far less bombastic, but in its own way Imperial Dreams might be an even more powerful testament to the moral morass that constitutes life for some in the inner city.

We're introduced to Bambi as he's waking home from jail, his belongings swinging on his side in a silly looking plastic garbage bag. Through voiceover we hear about the challenges of reintegration, how coming back to real life after prison is at best an acclimation, and at worst a slide into old habits. Seeing to make a go and to raise his son, Bambi must confront the reality that those around him continue to hold expectations of what his contributions should be.

John Boyega (who I knew as Moses from Attack the Block) provides an absolutely standout performance as Bambi. With every turn its shown that the easiest thing of all would be to turn back to the thug life. It's not just that criminality is an escape, it's actually presented as both the most pragmatic and most effective way of digging oneself out of the pit of poverty and despair, and that fighting for some sort of positive influence on his son actually results in increasing levels of tragedy.

Given its timing, and the fact that it's playing at Sundance, the film actually reminded me quite a bit of the best parts of Fruitvale Station. There's an everyday-ness to the film that's almost documentary like, yet it's also told with deft pacing and serious attention paid to moments of great drama. Vitthal's direction is assured, and his ensemble does an admirable job as never feeling like stereotypes or arch villains. Even the most violent or brutal confrontations seem to make sense within the twisted logic of the community, so that each choice is itself shown to lead to often horrific unforeseen circumstances.

Beautifully lensed, this is a film that gives a gritty yet inviting look into the inner city world of LA. It's told without ever feeling like they're hyping a given situation for cinematic effect, yet it equally doesn't succumb to shaky-cam stupidity for the sake of conveying some sort of stark reality. This is a quiet film with bursts of anger and violence, and is all the more effective for it.

A taut, effective piece, Imperial Dreams is one of the more remarkable films detailing this highly specific aspect of the African American experience. It details the morally ambivalence of the situation in inner-city LA with beauty and grace, providing some of the most effective and memorable performances of the year. While it might not have the hook of "reality" that the likes of Fruitvale had to find a wider audience, I can only hope that people seek out this gem of a film.
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