John Boyega elevates flawed ‘Imperial Dreams,’ affirms leading man status

Katherine Fairfax Wright/Courtesy
"Imperial Dreams" | Netflix
Grade: B-

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Netflix has had a prolific streak of producing and distributing quality content, as evidenced by the hours we’ve spent binging “Stranger Things,” “House of Cards,” the Marvel TV shows, “Orange is the New Black,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” (*takes deep breath*) “Making a Murderer” and numerous comedy specials. With no signs of slowing down, especially after ventures into original films, Netflix is now releasing Malik Vitthal’s “Imperial Dreams,” led by “Star Wars” star John Boyega. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, winning the “Best of Next” award, and we now have Netflix to thank for giving this heartfelt (though flawed) exercise in realism a much-needed wide release three years later.

Boyega is an actor making all the right career moves. After a strong debut in Joe Cornish’s 2011 cult hit “Attack the Block,” he wisely chose to showcase his dramatic chops in “Imperial Dreams.” Both films earned him starring roles in franchises such as “Star Wars,” the in-the-works “Pacific Rim” sequel and an upcoming prestige project with director Kathryn Bigelow about the 1967 Detroit Riots. Given the talent shown in “Imperial Dreams,” it wouldn’t be unimaginable for Boyega to take home some awards in the future to display next to his lightsaber.

Although the name “Imperial Dreams” may suggest “Star Wars” fun, the film offers an astounding performance from Boyega. Indeed, the film’s appeal lies in watching Boyega own every frame he occupies. He plays Bambi, an aspiring writer who was just released from prison and now devotes every bit of his being to the care of his young son, Day (Ethan and Justin Coach). Meanwhile, Bambi must resist the pull toward gang violence and drug running, a temptation levied by his unrelenting uncle, Shrimp (a genuinely scary performance from Glenn Plummer). “Imperial Dreams” depends on Boyega’s ability to reel the audience in and establish empathy for Bambi — and he pulls it off stunningly. Bambi is someone who we know is hardened by prison and life in the projects of Watts, Los Angeles, but it’s a hardness that always gives way to genuine tenderness. This is most evident in Bambi’s relationship with Day: His unconditional love for his son lends the film an undeniable sense of heart.

While Bambi’s relationship with Day is heartfelt, it’s rather one-sided, as Boyega does all the heavy lifting. It’s tough, perhaps even unfair, to criticize child actors because of their lack of training and experience. Finding talented child actors is a particularly difficult process for any casting team. Yet, the performances of Ethan and Justin Coach, the twins that play Day, are uneven throughout the film. They overreact during certain moments of tension, but in other moments of far greater emotional stakes, they don’t emote as much as one would expect. The script doesn’t help either, leaving Day with not much to say besides “yeah” and the occasional stale “I love you.”

The script falls short in other respects as well. Bambi’s character arc revolves around his struggle to separate the crime that pervades Watts from his new life as a devoted father. We don’t, however, get the sense that this struggle is particularly difficult for Bambi. In the film, Bambi is denied work because of a deeply flawed bureaucracy, which should be the impetus for Bambi to consider taking up the illicit work of his uncle. Bambi strays toward that temptation, but not long enough to offer dramatic engagement. In this sense, Bambi’s arc ebbs and flows but never reaches the highs and lows that it should. As a result, “Imperial Dreams” suffers from a lack of nuance in its characters, becoming a bit of a bore.

“Imperial Dreams” might be flawed, but one aspect of the film is particularly striking. Bambi finds solace in writing and publishes a short story from prison, setting off his dream to become an author. The film posits the idea that art saves people, a notion that would otherwise be a platitude but is conveyed with enough sincerity to become an affirming message that needs to be heard by all.

“Imperial Dreams” is now playing on Netflix.

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].