The Dream Catcher

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The Dream Catcher

Paradoxically, road movies may be the easiest films to make, but they're also the hardest to pull off, because the freedom of working outside the rigid confines of plot and structure can lead to an air of listlessness and ennui. As it traipses cross-country through littered streets, empty freights, and wide-open expanses of highway, Ed Radtke's The Dream Catcher stumbles across truth and cliché in equal measure, alternating scenes of rote melodrama with disarming emotion and lyricism. The best moments are unscripted and seemingly intuitive, like when the camera catches a particularly striking patch of landscape, or when the actors are so unguarded that they don't seem to be acting at all. Beginning with the simple, skeletal premise of two teenage runaways looking for family, Radtke adds a number of encounters with colorful roadsters from all walks of life. But the central relationship is the only one that really resonates. Though markedly different in age and temperament, the ragged heroes are bonded by a shared limbo in which they're escaping their former life as much as they're halfheartedly pursuing a new one. The older of the two, a sullen loner played by Maurice Compte, has left behind a pregnant girlfriend in Philadelphia, ostensibly to get money from his elderly uncle in Indiana and reunite with his ex-con father in Oklahoma City. At a rest-stop bathroom, he meets Paddy Connor, a sweet-natured, hyperactive 15-year-old who escaped juvenile detention to seek out his mother in Reno. Compte resists the kid at every juncture, but Connor's dogged, ingratiating charm keeps tugging at his defenses, and their fates become hitched as they zigzag toward the West. Along the way, they run across Bible-thumpers, a pot-smoking Marine, a belligerent carnival worker, an Indian priest, and an assortment of other quirky characters, none of whom make much of an impression. Whenever Radtke breaks away from the complex, unsteady dynamic between his boyish runaways, The Dream Catcher loses momentum, distracting from their relationship rather than deepening it. Yet despite such unwelcome intrusions—symbolic cutaways to caged birds being the most egregious—Radtke shows remarkable sensitivity in handling his lead actors (Connor, especially, is wonderful) and a keen eye for the rough-hewn beauty of Middle America. The Dream Catcher makes a good argument for a purer, more instinctive road movie, in which the highway leads and the script is tossed out the window.