Shows promise, but ultimately a mismatch of interesting ideas that fail to come together.
Directed and written by Garret Bradley Below Dreams follows three characters struggling with life in a post-recession America. In New Orleans, Jamaine is struggling to find employment with a criminal record and Leanne, a mother of four, is trying to revive her dreams of becoming a model. Meanwhile, Elliot, lost and frustrated with his life in New York, has travelled to New Orleans to meet up with a girl, yet really he is looking for some sort of inspiration to fix the mundanity of his life.
Below Dreams is a stripped back, bare-bones drama, with the aesthetic of a documentary and has the same detached view to its subjects. Rather than a dramatic narrative, Below Dreams is a series of observed conversations with Leanne, Elliot, and Jamaine chatting to friends and relatives. The camera quietly observes them, occasionally from a distance. We follow Jamaine talking to his friend on the porch, Leanne talking to her mother in car, and Elliot chatting in a taxi about the state of their lives. They all come from different walks of life yet they all have something in common; they are all searching for something greater than the cold hard reality of life. Jamaine is a former convict who expresses an ambition to attend acting classes, though his girlfriend just wants him to get a paycheck at the end of the month. Leanne wants to build a career she loves but is held back by the responsibility of caring for children. And Elliot is really just searching for anything to give any meaning to his life.
With Below Dreams, Bradley has gone out of his way to convey a sense of realism and a sense of authenticity when observing the lives of his three characters struggling with life in America. The cinematography is unobtrusive and utilitarian, and conversations between characters are loose and appear unscripted. Yet, he also occasionally tries to inject the film with a “poetic realism” and the two different approaches appear to conflict rather than complement each other. Moody shots of Elliot looking out of a car window or “tripping out” in a bar are jarring when put alongside the integrity of the simply shot scenes of Jamaine and Leanne’s brutally honest conversations with friends and relatives.
The other issue is that Bradley is so terrified of appearing to be writing any sort of narrative driven story that the film’s lead characters are left woefully undeveloped. Of all the three characters Jamaine is the easiest to empathize with, he has made mistakes in his life but is getting on with trying to fix them. Scenes where he walks the streets looking for any job he can lay his hands on are easily the most poignant. It’s also somewhat refreshing to see a character with gold teeth and tattoos conveyed in such a sympathetic light and genuinely, and by the end of the film you want him to succeed. Yet we gain very little insight into the character really beyond the fact that he used to be a gangster with gold-teeth. This ambiguity may be intriguing but it’s also irritating and leaves the audience rather shut out of making an emotional attachment to the film. Meanwhile, Elliot is hard to identify with and Bradley gives us little reason to care about his search for meaning. Leanne is more empathetic and Bradley acutely conveys the challenge of being a single mother, but just like Jamaine, her story only really appears to be moving forward when the film abruptly ends.
In the end Below Dreams fails to say anything of significance about New Orleans or invoke any strong emotional response. Below Dreams would have benefitted from a narrower focus from Bradley on what story he wanted to tell and how he wanted to tell it. A full-fledged documentary would have given more insight on the poverty of those living in New Orleans than a series of observed conversations restricted to talking about jobs and the economy, despite their loose naturalistic appearance. Whilst Bradley could have created a more emotionally poignant drama had he stayed with one character and let the audience become fully involved in their hopes and dreams, as the superior Beasts of the Southern Wild (another film dealing with poverty in New Orleans) did so effectively. Below Dreams is a film that shows promise and the potential talent of its director, yet in the end is a mismatch of interesting ideas that fails to come together into a satisfying whole.