Ontario’s badlands inspire Mean Dreams

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      Starring Bill Paxton. Rated PG.

      Part dreamy coming-of-age story, part crime thriller, part homage to Badlands, Mean Dreams manages to build a mood all its own. Call it Sault gothic.

      Filmed in northern Ontario, it has a quiet intensity and a strong, visceral sense of place. Naturalistic young Sophie Nélisse and Josh Wiggins play two teens who bond in a bleak rural setting. They live next to each other, in the kind of farmhouses that have duct-taped screen doors, peeling shingles, and dated wood-panel-and-Arborite-counter kitchens.

      His mother suffers crippling depression, and his father made him quit school to work the farm; her single dad, a cop played by Bill Paxton, hides a sinister side beneath his smile. Watch Nélisse’s Casey hesitate and subtly flinch the first time he warmly says, “C’mere.”

      When the do-gooder Jonas (a fresh-faced Wiggins) witnesses a crime and ends up with a bag of stolen cash, he sees their chance for escape. But they’re not sure where they’re running to (Casey vaguely wants to “see the ocean”), and they’re being chased by forces of true evil.

      Along their journey, director Nathan Morlando makes artful use of the Sault Ste. Marie region in autumn, wrapping scenes in orange and yellow foliage, and finding atmospheric back roads, misty lakes, tired motels, and even a beat-up, abandoned Sunday-school bus. 

      Helped by Son Lux’s driving, ominous soundtrack, he also builds a palpable sense of suspense and danger for the innocent lovebirds. The soulful setting is matched by strong performances, not just by the unaffected Wiggins and Nélisse, but by a genuinely frightening Paxton.

      The film’s last act enters more conventional territory, complete with a gun, a showdown, and an overwrought finale that’s predictable and yet not entirely satisfying.

      Still, what stays with you is the bleak yet burnished northern landscapes and the idea that two teen protagonists can have unironic conversations and show vulnerability—no matter how rotten the world around them is.