Neflix UK film review: Imperial Dreams
A new hope8
Ivan Radford | On 04, Feb 2017
Director: Malik Vitthal
Cast: John Boyega, Rotimi
Watch Imperial Dreams online in the UK: Netflix
Meet Bambi (Boyega). He’s 21 years old. He’s just been released from prison. And he’s returning to his old neighbourhood to start a new life. If you’re already nodding because you think you know how this story will play out, that’s exactly why Imperial Dreams is worth watching. The familiar narrative of a young black man sliding back into crime due to no other option has sadly become all too familiar, in many regards – Imperial Dreams tells it to us again with fresh eyes.
Malik Vitthal’s directorial debut follows in the footsteps of Fruitvale Station with its naturalistic depiction of what faces Bambi upon his homecoming. He shoots the streets of Watts, Los Angeles, with an underplayed eye, allowing the sunlit dead-ends and the bullet-ridden fear of the nighttime to speak for themselves. City of stars, this ain’t.
If the result lacks the powerful clout of Fruitvale’s fact, it finds similar weight in its starmaking turn from John Boyega. Made before he shot to worldwide fame in The Force Awakens, the latter has no doubt been key to its appeal for Netflix, which has snapped it up as an Original film three years after its Sundance premiere. That’s only a good thing, though, as its release now confirms that Boyega isn’t just a charismatic presence in the cinematic galaxy, but a subtle, thoughtful, brooding performer who stands alongside Britain’s best young talents.
Boyega is magnetic, quietly bringing Bambi to life out of the sea of potential cliches that could litter the movie. Only a few years after Boyega’s lead turn in Attack the Block, Bambi’s frown almost visibly carries the weight of that added age, shouldering the burdens that are thrown on him. It soon becomes apparent that there are many. There’s his cousin, Gideon (De’aundre Bonds), still caught up in gangs. There’s his mother, an alcoholic in no state to look after anyone. There’s his baby mama, in prison doing her own time. And there’s Uncle Shrimp (a menacing Glenn Plummer), who will only let his nephew live in his home if he agrees to drive a car stuffed with drugs across the state border.
And so Bambi has no choice but to live on the streets, sleeping in his car with his son, Day (played by twins Ethan and Justin Coach). The supporting cast are all convincing, but it’s in this central duo that Imperial Dreams finds its strength. Driven by the determination to make sure his son doesn’t grow up in the same life, Bambi does everything he can to keep his son from his uncle, stringing up fairy lights on the back seat of his sedan to make it homely. The Coaches and Boyega have heartbreaking chemistry, from one tearful scene where they briefly bid goodbye to the moments when he tenderly reads Day bedtime stories.
Vitthal’s script, co-written with Ismet Prcic, hinges its heavy drama on that optimistic bond, allowing the film to portray life after prison with an unflinching grimness without descending into melodrama. Bambi’s brother, Wayne (Rotimi), is aiming for college and tries to help where he can – he wears ties, while Bambi is stuck wearing the same shirt over and over. A visit to the local DMV office, meanwhile, presents the nonsensical, harsh bureaucracy of a system stacked against him: to get a job, Bambi needs a driver’s licence, but can only do that if he pays off his child support debt, which he can’t do unless he gets a job. Even the bedtime stories that he tells Day are his own written accounts of prison.
But that’s also Bambi’s plan for the future: he wants to use his writing to stop others from falling into the same catch-22 situation. “When you’re born in prison,” he observes, in one of many poetic passages. “You don’t know what to do with freedom.” Naturally, most people around him – including his parole officer – sneer at the idea of him becoming a published author, but Imperial Dreams impresses because it doesn’t. Vitthal could have taken the easy route and slipped back into the familiar narrative of urban dramas about young people trying to escape the streets. But Imperial Dreams unabashedly places the emphasis on that second word, allowing for an uplifting hint of hope that makes the gritty reality all the more effective. There’s a lot of Shawshank before the Redemption. But that doesn’t mean Redemption is impossible.
Imperial Dreams is now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.