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An unwholesome stew of self-loathing, instability and sputtering indignation is ready to combust for Cam, the desperate ride-share driver played by Jim Gaffigan in American Dreamer. Though Cam’s rage is never quite labeled white rage by writer-director Derrick Borte, race is more than subtext in this taut thriller. The central character, once a solidly middle-class guy, is no poster boy for prep-school entitlement. But he definitely feels undermined — “sabotaged” is how he puts it. Swept aside by churning tides of economic and social change, he’s consumed to the point of derangement by the disorienting sense that “this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
Best known for his stand-up comedy, Gaffigan digs into the role with an unshowy and convincing portrayal. He has a fine foil in Robbie Jones (of Bosch and Tyler Perry’s Temptation), as the ruthless drug dealer who’s Cam’s benefactor of sorts — and then his victim. Flirting with stereotypes and improbable twists, Borte, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniel Forte, has made an intimate and unsettling genre piece.
In the movie’s unnamed city — it was shot largely in Borte’s hometown of Norfolk, Virginia — the director zeros in on the wrong side of the tracks and its marginalized inhabitants, with one or two piercing glances, from Cam’s perspective, at the upscale destinations of his ride-share customers. Cam, we gradually learn, didn’t take it well when he was downsized from his white-collar job. Subsequently rejected by his wife, he can barely keep himself housed and fed on his gig-economy earnings, let alone keep up with alimony and child support.
Each intrusive ding of the Hail app is a rude reminder of how far he’s fallen. In a potently awkward encounter with a former colleague, Cam’s attempts to disguise his humiliation — and to hide the Hail decal on his windshield — are valiant and pathetic. When he’s behind the wheel, his resentment simmers just a nanometer beneath the obsequious surface. (In a memorably ironic detail of Jack Ryan’s lived-in production design, a smiley-face ornament hangs from Cam’s rearview mirror.) Away from the job, he flails against the ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) who despises him, demanding his “natural right” to see his tween son. Eating a takeout dinner in his car, he watches a homeless woman on the nighttime street, his gaze weighing how much, or how little, separates them.
Many of Cam’s passengers treat him like a nonentity. The one who treats him worst is also the one who pays him best, off-the-books client Mazz (Jones). The street-smart Mazz shrewdly understands that Cam’s nondescript sedan is the perfect low-key cover for his drug-dealing trips crisscrossing the city. “Ain’t no such thing as fair,” insists the self-impressed trafficker, as assured in his ascendance as Cam is undone by crushing shame and day-to-day struggles. Glimpses of the younger man’s home life with girlfriend, Marina (Isabel Arraiza, very good), and their young son underscore what the envious Cam has lost. He sees domestic bliss, not what a coke-addicted mess Marina is.
The tension between tormenter and prey is superbly played, and astutely filmed (by Eric Hurt) and edited (by Soojin Chung). Calling the shots from the back seat, Mazz takes perverse delight in toying with Cam. His every calculation, whether trivial or deadly serious, plays across his face with delighted menace. When Cam snaps, setting in motion a scheme — to use the word loosely — to kidnap Mazz and Marina’s toddler, the movie momentarily becomes as unhinged as its self-defeating protagonist. Other characters speak of Cam as mentally ill, but Borte maintains a certain ambiguity on the matter. Until he doesn’t. When the driver’s thin grasp of facts surfaces, it feels too convenient storywise. That muddles a crucial plot point, with Cam refusing to face a devastating reality that is already distractingly evident to the audience.
But when events converge at a low-rent motel, with three sets of colliding agendas, the vise tightens effectively. Hurt’s camerawork captures the ratcheting danger without fuss: The lies and suspicions of Cam, Mazz and a distraught Marina ricochet around the confined space of the car. Eventually they explode outward, to include Mazz’s double-dealing partner, Gumby (Alejandro Hernandez), and some of their underlings.
Borte has shown a preference for happy endings in his previous work, but here he embraces the story’s dark implications, and the results, however discomforting, are dramatically satisfying. In the shadows where his and Forte’s characters live, one grievous misstep can set off an avalanche. Whether anyone else feels the aftershock is another matter, but you’d have to be living in a dreamland not to see a certain preordained pattern: who lives, who dies, and who’s expendable.
Production companies: Storyland Pictures, Sugar Studios LA
Cast: Jim Gaffigan, Robbie Jones, Isabel Arraiza, Tammy Blanchard, Alejandro Hernandez, Eric Hill Jr.,
Director: Derrick Borte
Screenwriters: Derrick Borte, Daniel Forte
Producer: Scott Floyd Lochmus
Executive producers: Mary Vernieu, Jonathan Gray, Jijo Reed, Christopher Rush Harrington, Nate Bolotin, Pip Ngo
Director of photography: Eric Hurt
Production designer: Jack Ryan
Costume designer: Jessica Zavala
Editor: Soojin Chung
Composer: Bryan Senti
Casting director: Matthew Messinger
Venue: L.A. Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: XYZ Films
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