'A Boy. A Girl. A Dream.': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A hypnotic dream meets some upsetting reality.

Qasim Basir's film follows two potential lovers in Los Angeles on the night of Trump's election.

All about moods, inchoate dreams, chance connections, the ying–yang of attraction, moving through nocturnal Los Angeles with the events of Election Night 2016 hovering in the background, A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. sticks close to an attractive young couple who, just having met, spend the evening sparking, brooding, arguing, testing the sexual waters, trying to connect and obliquely reacting to what’s happening in the country.

This ambitious third film by Qasim Basir, purportedly shot all in one take (though almost certainly not), is intermittently intoxicating as it sends its searchers figuratively floating through the night on a vague and unplanned odyssey looking for something they can’t precisely verbalize. More festivals should lie ahead for a film that’s pleasurable to engage with, even if the latter stretch doesn’t come close to realizing some of the early promise.

There’s both a lot of talk and a good deal of quiet time in this emotionally mercurial tale, which is set almost entirely in a Los Angeles populated by stylish young African-Americans out for the evening. Cass (Omar Hardwick) immediately comes across as a player, as he hangs out at one nightclub, then leaves for another, always with a bevy of women buzzing around him. He’s handsome, well-built and charming, even if he can’t effectively suppress bursts of annoyance, dissatisfaction and simmering anger.

Catching his attention is a woman he’s never seen before, the classy Frida (Meagan Good). She’s a lawyer from the Midwest, due to leave in the morning, and the instant attraction between her and Cass is obvious. But there’s a misreading of signals, he jumps the gun physically and she bolts. After they both calm down, she accepts his invitation to join him at an election returns-watching gathering at a mansion up in the Hollywood Hills.

His confident ways and easy manner notwithstanding, Cass seems like something of a hard case. With little provocation, he can fall into brooding silent funks; there are clearly things eating away at him. On the fence about him, Frida jumps in the Lyft with him and off they go.

The lengthy car ride, during which glimpses of the city pass by as if in hallucinatory flashes, maximizes the film’s dreamlike quality. They’re in a zone all to themselves, a quiet atmosphere that at once fosters a potential complicity between two complex, dissatisfied people and creates an appealing voyeuristic perch from which the viewer can observe them.

Cinematographer Steven Holleran, whose background unsurprisingly includes extensive work as a camera operator, has done an excellent job of following the characters as they move through the night; there really is something hypnotic about the film’s continuous-time look and feel, whether it was all done in one take or not. Almost assuredly it was not, as there at least two and perhaps three moments along the way when the screen goes entirely black, allowing for imperceptible cuts. In either case, it’s a well-executed high-wire act in terms of timing the dialogue and action with the characters’ moves through town.

The main set-piece takes place in a huge, predominately glass modern house with views of city lights as far as the eye can see, as well as a full moon. The rhythm of this interlude is odd; Cass and Frida interact very little with the people at the house, the TV is turned off as soon as Trump’s victory is announced and guests just go on partying. The two leads scarcely discuss the election at all (“There are too many bad people winning,” Frida concisely observes) as they move around the roof having quasi-arguments about their own happiness, dreams and how they are or should be conducting their lives, talking about each other as if they’ve know each other far longer than an hour.

Just when things should begin to come into focus dramatically, they continue to slide as the couple hops another car and ends up at Mel’s Drive-In on the Sunset Strip. From here on is where Basir and co-screenwriter Samantha Tanner really needed to devote some concentrated rewrite time to sharpening the focus and dialogue. Sitting in the back of the restaurant (nobody ever does come around to ask them for an order), they discuss their dreams, the state of things, and tell each other what they ought to be doing, broken by stretches when the brooding Cass doesn’t say anything at all. Instead of leading to some sort of dramatic, head-clearing climax, the merely overstays its welcome, with one’s investment in the characters quickly slipping away.

The mood of A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. exerts a strong pull, and there’s definitely talent here — very much including the two leads, who are onscreen virtually the entire time — but it’s far from a fully realized achievement.

Production company: Datari Turner Productions
Cast: Omari Hardwick, Meagan Good, Jay Ellis, Kenya Barris, Dijon Talton, Wesley Jonathan
Director: Qasim Basir
Screenwriters: Qasim Basir, Samantha Tanner
Producer: Datari Turner
Executive producers: Omar Hardwick, Meagan Good, Phil Thornton, Amal Chilton, Jashod Belcher
Director of photography: Steven Holleran
Production designer: Nathaly Lopez
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

89 minutes