Melancholy doesn't cut it. The Dream Catcher, a small, bleak, yet heartfelt road picture from Yellow Springs, Ohio, director Ed Radtke, has less in common with the thrill of the open road than with the muck coagulating in the floor mats. Every time the sun sets here, you don't expect it to rise, which is in keeping with what it feels like sometimes to be angry, aimless, and young.
Disaffected youth isn't a theme so much as it is a thick cloud bank of angst that settles over the film. Shot across Ohio, mainly around Dayton, the backgrounds rushing by don't have the usual honey glows seen in other movies made around the Midwest. Burnt grasslands blur past. Gray highways stretch beneath overpasses. Overgrown turnpike islands dot the landscape. And everything is desolate, with rust around the edges: the cars, the rest stops, the gas stations, diners, and train tracks.
Against this grim backdrop - with the occasionally inserted image of a fluttering bird trapped in a cage, a ponderously symbolic touch - two boys head west. They cross the country in stolen cars and in the backseats of station wagons and in freight cars. They both say they're going west for their own reasons, but they're really not headed toward anything in particular so much as running away from their lives.
Freddy (Maurice Compte) and Albert (Paddy Connor) meet in a rest-stop bathroom. Albert, a goofy, needy kid who wants to see his mom in Reno, just escaped from a van headed back to some sort of juvenile detention center. He hits Freddy up for cigarettes. Freddy is quiet, volatile, and brooding, a model of shaky adolescence headed into an uncertain adulthood; he reluctantly allows Albert to tag along. Freddy wants to ditch the kid, but then maybe he doesn't because he needs to nurture something - a big point the movie makes without much fanfare.
His pregnant girlfriend is in Philadelphia, and he's headed in the other direction: to Oklahoma City to visit his father (Toledo resident Joseph Arthur), who just got out of jail.
Naturally, as with these kind of lost-youth-hit-the-road pictures, The Dream Catcher is episodic, with a cast of strange characters and dangerous mini-adventures. But as usual, the journey is the actual destination. What makes Radtke's film different is how unglamorous it is. Compte doesn't try to work his way into our hearts; he looks confused and adrift and stays that way. Arthur, a sometime actor who was cast for his granite features, conveys the hollow look of the economically shell-shocked.
Radtke has said the movie - which, after playing the film-festival circuit for a couple of years, opens in a few larger cities this fall - feels real because it's partly autobiographical: He was arrested as a teenager, he fathered a child before he was 20, he even hit the road by himself for no other reason than to see where it led.
The Dream Catcher embodies that last sentiment: here's a sometimes forced, but more often open-eyed experiment that leads from “The Heart of It All” into the heart of nowhere.