Making its Los Angeles premiere on August 9, Malik Vitthal's debut feature "Imperial Dreams" tells the story of a young ex-convict seeking a better life for himself and his son. It screens in Next Fest, Sundance's annual film and music showcase at the Ace Hotel.
It's easy to see why the film took the Best of Next Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, as it represents classic and heartfelt storytelling at its best. But as an understated drama set in the crime-ridden Imperial Courts housing projects of Watts, Los Angeles, it runs the risk of being overlooked as a story we've seen before.
The plot centers on Bambi (John Boyega), a 21-year-old newly released from prison and looking to jumpstart a writing career in order to turn his life around. But as soon as he hits the streets of his old neighborhood, he's confronted with challenges that threaten to pull him back into a life of crime. Most pressing is the need to care for his four-year-old son Day (played by twins Justin and Ethan Coach), who's been left in the care of his drug-running Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer) after Bambi's girlfriend Samaara (Keke Palmer) is locked up on charges of her own. Bambi's brother Wayne (Rotimi), cousin Gideon (De'aundre Bonds) and drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith) do their best to welcome him back into the fold, but their needs only threaten to trump his own goal of earning money while keeping his hands clean.
Eventually Bambi is left to face poverty with his son at his side in a struggle akin to "The Pursuit of Happyness," clinging to his dream against all odds. But unlike that story, this one moves beyond the moral of personal willpower to acknowledge some of the broken institutions holding its hero back. Through Bambi's eyes, we see the day-to-day difficulty of life as an ex-con, where getting a job or even an ID can be next to impossible.
Vitthal avoids many of the clichés common to the genre with the layered portrayal of Bambi and his loved ones. This is a world where violence and corruption are prevalent, but also where black men, even presumed villains and thugs, actively demonstrate love, fear, and affection. It's in this complex emotional territory that Boyega shines brightest, showing equal parts toughness and vulnerability. The "Attack The Block" star plays the role of Bambi with a maturity that reaches far beyond his 21 years, reflecting both his talent and the harsh realities of the character, who isn't afforded the luxury of an easy childhood. According to Vitthal, Boyega spent a month in Watts prior to the film getting familiar with Bobby "Yay Yay" Jones, the real-life inspiration for the film. Apparently the work paid off, as he pulls off the role convincingly, giving a glimpse of what's sure to be a stellar acting career.
Despite its merits, "Dreams" had a definite lack of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has yet to receive distribution. It's possible that the film seems to tread in old territory considering recent "Fruitvale Station," another tale where a troubled youth tries to turn over a new leaf. And even the premise of a reformed ex-con in the hoods of LA harkens back to a bygone era of '90s thug dramas. But to gloss over "Dreams" as just another film set in the hood would be a mistake. With rich storytelling, fine acting, and captivating cinematography and score by Flying Lotus, the movie is a cinematic achievement.
"Imperial Dreams" screens at Sundance Next Fest on August 9 alongside a performance by R&B artist Tinashe. The film is preceded by "M.A.A.D.", a short by Kahlil Joseph commissioned by Kendrick Lamar, Find tickets here.