Imperial Dreams (2014) | Directed by Malik Vitthal | Drama | With John Boyega, Glenn Plummer, Rotini, Keke Palmer | Rotten Tomatoes score: 91%
Before British actor John Boyega rose to international fame through his work in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), he starred in the little-known Netflix original Imperial Dreams. Many of us have a soft spot for a rags-to-riches story or a story of people turning their lives completely around, and Los Angeles-based filmmaker Malik Vitthal provides us with just that in his uplifting, low-budget debut film.
Boyega’s character, Bambi, returns to his home in L.A.’s Watts district after over two years in prison for assault. Unlike many young ex-cons, though, he has a young child, Day, who had been left with Bambi’s drug-dealing uncle, Shrimp, and his alcoholic mother, Tanya.
While Bambi tries to turn his life around and detach himself from his past, many temptations nearly drag him back into his former criminal life that he is all too familiar with. For instance, Shrimp repeatedly attempts to pressure him into running a delivery truck full of oxy across state lines into Oregon, offering him four grand. Shrimp’s son Gideon, who shows up with a bullet hole in his arm while fleeing from a rival gang as well as the police, also serves as a reminder of Bambi’s dark past that he is desperately trying to run away from. Wayne, Bambi’s half-brother, represents a more positive path, as he was awarded a scholarship to Howard University to study business, successfully escaping the street life. But Shrimp refuses to let Bambi go, which forces Bambi to move into a car with his son Day. To make matters worse, he can’t get a job or driver’s license and struggles to support his child.
Vitthal and Ismet Prcic, who co-wrote the script, cleverly steer away from gang movie clichés and offer a refreshing take on the struggles of inner-city life by carefully incorporating many obstacles common for anyone trying to climb their way out of poverty. Boyega shows off a good feel for the setting and shows genuine empathy for his character’s unique situation. Glenn Plummer also strikes gold as the menacing drug runner holding back Bambi. The true core of this film, however, is the relationship between Bambi and Day, which is why Boyega’s chemistry with the twin brothers (Justin and Ethan Coach) playing his son is so vital to the film.
Day is what makes Bambi stand out from the other characters, as his existence is the true motivation for Bambi’s actions. When their lives depend on a broken-down sedan on the curb of a street in Watts, their connection really shines through.
Vitthal, who only has few films to his name, understands that sometimes, less is more. Perhaps the best components of the film are the camerawork and editing – the complexity of shots seems to be minimized and the characters are almost always the main focus. This is because the characters are obviously the biggest part of the storyline, and viewers can almost relate to them (even though the majority of people have never experienced anything close to this story). Another big positive aspect of this film is the soundtrack by rapper Flying Lotus, who has made songs for Grant Theft Auto San Andreas, which sets the intense mood and tone for the movie.
As it never appeared in theaters and debuted at Sundance, Imperial Dreams is a relatively unknown and underrated film, yet it has the opportunity of realigning opinions on how inner-city movies should be made. Boyega delivers a memorable performance in his determined pursuit to an unknown future, creating a character that has no choice but to think that freeing himself from the chains linking himself to his past is worth the struggle.