There’s always at least one hidden treasure at Sundance that seems to go unnoticed by audiences and critics alike—with no real good answer as to why the buzz wasn’t loud enough to get more people talking about it—but it happens. This year, that gem is Malik Vitthal’s first shot at a feature film, the incredibly touching “Imperial Dreams,” which remixes the gangster rites of passage: you can take the gangster out of the hood, but can you take the hood out of the gangster?
John Boyega (whom you’ll remember from the SXSW darling “Attack the Block”) stars as Bambi, a young man fresh out of prison, living in the slums of Los Angeles. The only thing he knows is the gangster life; while in prison, however, he takes up creative writing, gets a short story published in a book and decides he wants to trade in the gun for a pencil and take care of his son, whom he finds living without supervision from anyone when he returns home. His first day out isn’t turning out as well as he hoped, his constantly high uncle wants him to return to the gangster’s paradise and it’s either that or him and his son will be without food or a roof over their heads. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but what is a father to do with limited options?
Boyega first wowed audiences with his dynamite performance in “Attack the Block.” Once again playing the anti-hero, “Imperial Dreams” is another victory lap for this young actor, who’s going to go on to do big, big things, yet again showcasing his ability to crank up the charm in the roles he’s been given. Bambi is the kind of guy who will give up everything so his son can have a chance at a better life. Currently, their best and only form of entertainment is each other—they spend their time together reading, with Bambi embellishing the stories for his boy. They may be living out of a car, in the streets or wherever they're welcome, but he’ll be damned if his son’s education doesn’t continue. When some fathers in this less-than-ideal life look to possibly abandon their child, Bambi finds the magic in this situation.
Co-starring Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer and De'Aundre Bonds, Vitthal co-wrote “Imperial Dreams” for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which won a slew of grants and assisted in finding funding to help him make it into a feature. There are many stories out there dealing with a former thug trying to make good, but the impact of "Imperial Dreams" is in how the thug is trying to influence the world around him and live a better life. Bambi is trying to become a writer and wants to teach at-risk kids to stay out of trouble, but in order to do that, he needs a job; in order to get a job, he needs a driver's license; in order to get a driver’s license, he has to pay off a ridiculously large child support bill created and executed by the state—the government is keeping him from doing good things and leaving him little choice as to how he can live his life. (“Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the ‘hood’.” – Ice Cube, “Boyz N The Hood.”) It’s a heartwarming story of a father and son bonding, one which highlights that nothing is more powerful than family. [B+]