SXSW Film Review: California Dreams (USA, 2017) should be called “California Delusions”

With La La Land having recently dominated the Oscars, its story about 2 hopefuls trying to make it in Hollywood uncomfortably lingered in the back of my mind while watching California Dreams. Both La La Land and California Dreams share a similar premise of “dreams are built on sacrifice”, however the films attack their subject matter of struggling actors in entirely different ways. While La La Land shimmers with the temptation of nostalgia, love and the greediness of having your cake and eating it too, California Dreams explores sacrifice when you can’t even afford the ingredients to make that proverbial cake.

California Dreams directed by Mike Ott, is a docu-drama that explores the pipe-dreams of several unprofessional actors and their relationships with film and celebrity. However, these people aren’t your typical Emma Stone or Ryan Gosling. They do not fit the trope of an actor; they are not waitressing in Hollywood while hoping to to catch their break. No, these people are made up of the under represented, not just on the silver screen but in reality. They are: Patrick (Patrick Llaguno); a Filipino immigrant, Neil (Neil Harly); a screenwriter who works at Taco Bell, and the seeming protagonist of the film, Cory (Cory Zacharia) a well meaning, weed smoking 27 year old who hasn’t worked in 8 years. Unfortunately as much as the underdog in me wanted to cheer them on, these actors’ opening audition tapes were underwhelming. And so the film feels less of a dream, rather, a delusion.

However it is important to note that this film is a docu- drama. Director Mike Ott has worked with Cory before and Cory is actually a fully fledged actor. As well as this, there are scenes that stand out as being fictional and staged. And so, Ott uses this technique to expose and challenge an unconscious bias that the audience may have toward this film’s “real” characters. We don’t believe that these people will ever really reach their dreams and so we don’t even hope for their break through. They do not fit with our idea of success and so we feel uncomfortable for them. We feel for Cory’s mother as she has to bite her tongue and persuade Cory to find work. When Cory says he’s always wanted to be an actor because “acting is the only thing he is good at” we question his judgement and again are left feeling uncomfortable. These people exist on the fringe of society and yet aspire to make the leap of faith to the other side of the bell curve.

However as mentioned before, California Dreams does not let us indulge in our observational distance. It reels us in with cinematic choices that are akin to dramatisations or reenactments seen in the typical documentary form. These stylistic choices again blur the line between what is actually “real” in this film and suck us into a slow motion dreamscape of a heightened life.  In this way Ott cleverly allows us to access these people through a characterisation of sorts which allows us to identify with them on a deeper level.

As well as this, references to films and scenes that we are familiar with are used to again make us listen to the characters and second guess who they really are. One particular example was Patrick’s allusion to Forrest Gump. Patrick remembers when he was 7 or 8 years old watching Forrest Gump and becoming obsessed about the movie, believing Forrest to be a real person. A few years later Patrick realised his mistake musing “That’s when I realised how powerful cinema is because it convinces you in that moment that this person was real”.

This resounds within the context of the film, as in a fictional story such as Forrest Gump we can believe that Forrest, against all odds, could be successful. However in this docu-drama when confronted with “real” people with odds as great as Forrest, and potentially more so, we are painful realists. I believe that this really is the heart of the film. We are challenged by these people and their desire to become someone that they are not, but who feel like they glimpse the limelight through pretending.

Another interviewee, Carolan, a homeless woman living out of her car, says how she has often practiced her acceptance speech for the Oscar. When she tells us of her speech, the dress she wears and the line she will shed a tear at, you know that this is real for her. She isn’t acting. She feels in her heart that at that moment she is seen, heard and acknowledged.

In this way the dreams explored in this film are but a mirage, shimmering in the barren outskirts of the dry, desolate outer suburbs of LA. California Dreams ultimately is a reflection of an audience who save up their $12.50 to sit back and dream. Unfortunately, like the film so poignantly explores, when the credits roll, you have to wake up.

Review Score: THREE AND HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

California Dreams screened at SXSW in Austin, Texas.