'California Dreams': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Mike Gioulakis
Who's bad?

Director Mike Ott ('Actor Martinez') lets aspiring actors from small towns in California audition with their favorite Hollywood scene in this docu-fiction hybrid.

In the age of Insta-celebrities, reality TV luminaries — and I use the word luminaries very loosely — and countless variations on American Idol, the dreams of many seem to have less to do with possessing any kind of innate talent than with simply becoming famous. This would seem like fertile ground for a docu-fiction project, and the early going of Mike Ott’s California Dreams appears to tap into this idea, as the director asks unknowns from several small towns in California who dream of becoming actors to audition for him with their favorite Hollywood scene.

All the aspiring actors that audition, however, are terrible, which immediately paints Ott and his film into an awkward corner: Does he simply want to document the fact that most people who want to become famous and/or actors have no talent or is he exploiting these poor creatures for a cheap laugh and/or some easy tears? Does he want to mock these people? How does he think he’ll be able to make a good movie if all his “stars” are non-professionals amateurs who can’t act? These questions constantly hover over this curious feature, which premiered in the Berlin Critics’ Week this year and which will have its stateside premiere at SXSW.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mixing documentary and fiction elements or even questioning whether documentary reality even exists. But Ott seems unsure what he’s doing from the start and ignoring answers to some basic questions, like whether he auditioned any others rather than the handful of untalented misfits seen here. He juxtaposes footage of the auditions with more “movie-like” scenes featuring the same characters seen auditioning earlier, often weirdly choosing rather wide shots that let the actors drown in the landscape, reducing their faces to tiny dots. As the film progresses, a little narrative momentum seems to develop around the awkward, angular-faced Cory Zacharia, who says he hasn’t worked for eight years but who now needs to find a job so he can gather several hundred dollars for a plane ticket to Europe, where a German friend can cast him in a film.

Cory lives together with his margarita-imbibed mother, who’s on welfare, and the two struggle to spell words and do basic calculations for the paperwork required to get a job at a fast-food chain. The fact Ott is there with them feels exploitative, playing the fact the laptop dies just before he’s done or that Zacharia is sweating over how to spell seemingly easy words for laughs.

But is this really a documentary? Zacharia has starred in several of Ott’s previous films — yes, in the last eight years! — and an earlier short film they did together is actually woven into the feature here (to no apparent benefit). So is everything staged, including the frighteningly terrible screen-test footage? Are the actors actually bad or are they all just unknowns playing real people who are supposedly bad actors? The questions quickly start to drown out what is being presented and it becomes impossible to engage with the material because nothing can be taken at face value, but neither is the line of questioning coherent or, perhaps, even desired. If everything is indeed totally planned and staged, why are there so many sloppy illogicalities, like the fact one of the wannabe actors is from Las Vegas even though the film is seemingly about people from small towns in California (hence the title)? Or the fact the second half of the film ends up focusing on Zacharia to the detriment of what were supposedly his equals when they were all introduced earlier on? 

What thus remains is a film filled with badly acted scenes that doesn’t really go anywhere, has no real narrative or structure or momentum or even anything coherent to say. Just about the only certainty is that these unknown faces, from the Filipino immigrant hoping to make it big to the Oscar-obsessed lady living out of her car, are unlikely to hit it big after having starred in this film.

Production companies: Number 7 Films, Mall Form Films
Cast: Cory Zacharia, Patrick Mio Llaguno, Neil Harley, Kevin Gilger, Carolan J. Pinto, Mark Borchardt
Writer-director: Mike Ott
Producers: Heika Burnison, Nicole Arbusto, Alex Gioulakis
Director of photography: Mike Gioulakis
Editor: Gerald D. Rossini
Casting: Nicole Arbusto
Venue: Berlin Critics’ Week

85 minutes

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