Netflix is known for some of the best original television that’s never actually been on TV. But with “Imperial Dreams,” the streaming service has proven once again that its original-film game is also a force to be reckoned with. Starring John Boyega of “Star Wars” fame, this 2014 Sundance film is a piece of subtle, emotional and familial storytelling that is well-deserving of the stage it’s been given.
“Imperial Dreams” revolves around a young father named Bambi (John Boyega), who is fresh out of prison, and his struggle to provide a proper life for his son Day (Ethan and Justin Coach) without sinking back into the life of crime he once knew in Watts, Los Angeles. With Samaara, the mother of his child (Keke Palmer), locked up, Bambi is torn between the uphill climb of finding a legitimate job and the easy money of driving a car filled with painkillers across state lines for his Uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer). His refusal to do the latter gets him and his son kicked out of Uncle Shrimp’s house, forcing them to live in Bambi’s car.
Bambi’s dreams of becoming a writer make for a beautiful window into the pain that comes with the realities of poverty and violence, described in his notebook as the “cruelest of prisons, the most unusual of punishments.” Through the eyes of Bambi, his son Day, his brother Wayne (Rotimi), his drug-addicted mother Tanya (Kellita Smith) and his violence-stricken cousin Gideon (De’aundre Bonds), director Malik Vitthal paints a stark portrait of this brutal environment, with every shot fired, arrest made and insult hurled pounding the sad truths home.
The performances in “Imperial Dreams” are vivid, with John Boyega and Glenn Plummer leading the pack in terms of impressiveness. However, the contributions of every single actor and actress make this film feel less like a vignette and more like a realistic representation of a story playing out right now in cities across America.
Where the movie begins to struggle is plot. While the sequence of events begins in a way that is simple, straightforward and punchy, things begin to get diluted as the story trudges on, making for a few loose ends and a sense that 90 minutes may not have been quite long enough to tell this particular tale.
All things considered, “Imperial Dreams” is a touching, powerful and enjoyable exploration of a man’s relationship with his son, his family and his predicament. Tied together by a distinct score from hip-hop producer and Los Angeles native Flying Lotus, the film makes up for most of its plot missteps with great performances and gorgeous, gritty textures.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars