A slice of life drama about poverty in New Orleans, Below Dreams balances naturalist storytelling and audacious visuals to a nearly impressionistic effect.
The three main characters that Below Dreams traces are all stuck spinning their wheels for different reasons, but ultimately the same reason: lack of money and institutional support. Elliot is a drifting recent college grad; Jamaine is a young ex-con trying to support his family; and Rebecca is an aspiring model with four kids and a deadbeat boyfriend.
Of these, Jamaine’s story is by far the most gripping, as he quietly struggles with an identity crisis in a world that rejects him for his past and also his blackness. His was the only arc that gave me glimmers of despair and hope.
The stories occasionally flirt with “poverty porn,” as the characters’ bleak prospects and troubled living are the film’s central focus. But there’s enough personality and color that it’s ultimately humanist rather than exploitative.
Director Garrett Bradley (who got some buzz last year with the documentary Time) has an adventurous and artistic eye: Many of the film’s shots are long, stunning takes of urban life in alternating motion and stillness. Bradley also gets an editing credit, where she shows a knack for evocative sequencing and timing.
Below Dreams’ improvised, naturalistic dialogue will put plenty of viewers off, as will its largely aimless plot and downbeat tone. Even at 82 minutes, it feels a bit exhausting.
But I ultimately found the film to be a moving, visually enthralling work that has me excited to check out Bradley’s future films.
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.