'Dreamcatcher': Sundance Review

Dreamcatcher Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Dreamcatcher Still - H 2015

Anchored by its focus on the irrepressibly charismatic Brenda Myers-Powell, this documentary offers a deeply affecting portrait of women on the edge.

Documentary doyenne Kim Longinotto makes a rare foray into America to profile an organization devoted to helping prostitutes give up the life.

With Dreamcatcher, documentary doyenne Kim Longinotto offers a moving, yet slyly understated, portrait of a woman who, like so many the director’s heroine-subjects, might just qualify for secular sainthood. The star is Chicago-based Brenda Myers-Powell, a former prostitute who now runs, with her friend Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, the foundation of the title: a nonprofit dedicated to helping sex workers and young women at risk. Just as Brenda lives by a credo never to judge another woman, so too does the film, which creates an uplifting portrait of redemption and acceptance. U.S. premium-cable network Showtime bought the rights to Dreamcatcher immediately before the film’s premiere at Sundance, but offshore it has a better-than-usual chance for a Longinotto film of securing theatrical distribution.

Ever since her debut, Pride of Place, in 1976, Longinotto has earned a near-impeccable track record for making engaged, empathic films, usually about women fighting for their rights and social justice. Most of her prolific output since then has largely been set in the developing world (Sisters in Law, Salma, Rough Aunties), Iran (Divorce Iranian Style) or the Far East (Shinjuku Boys). So it’s interesting to see her turn her attention to an American subject for a change with this film and not a total surprise to learn from the press notes that the project didn’t originate with her. Producers Lisa Stevens and Teddy Leifer were the ones who first met the intensely charismatic Brenda while making their doc Crack House USA in 2009, and apparently it took some persuading to get Longinotto to board as director.

See more The Scene at Sundance Film Festival 2015

That said, this doesn’t feel in any way like a job for hire, and the resulting film is obviously congruent with Longinotto’s other work. Once again operating the camera herself and collaborating in post with her longtime editor Ollie Huddleston, Longinotto deftly balances character and context, capturing telling moments where subjects reveal themselves in an instant through minute gestures or expressions stuff that other filmmakers might not have noticed or would have left on the cutting-room floor.

It helps that Brenda Myers-Powell has such a big, brass-bright personality, with her maple-syrup voice and dynamite collection of wigs. First met trawling the cold, rough streets of Chicago’s West Side with colleague Daniels-Wilson in a minivan, she shouts out the window to the streetwalkers, offering condoms and comfort in equal measure. Like the director, she’s clearly a gifted listener, able to put the women at ease and elicit from them harrowing tale after tale of traumatized childhoods that led to drug abuse and prostitution. Still good friends with Homer King, a former pimp she knew back in her hooking days who now helps her warn teenagers about the predatory ways of men in his old trade, Brenda’s methods are like a kind of grooming in reverse, quietly planting the seeds in these women’s minds that there might be a way out of the lives of desperation they’re leading.

Sometimes, like in the case of Marie, the strategy works, but clearly there are women Brenda’s worked with who are still struggling to stay sober and off the game. One such mixed success is Brenda's own sister-in-law Melody, the birth-mother of Jeremy the young boy Brenda is raising with her husband, Keith, as her own. If the film has weak spot, it’s that in its zeal to cast a positive, uplifting light on Brenda's work, both with The Dreamcatcher Foundation and at a women’s prison where she toils as a counselor, little airtime is given to the her failures or frustrations with those who refuse to seek reform.

No doubt bones could be picked with the film’s lacunae and omissions elsewhere, but it deserves all the respect and praise it will no doubt reap for one scene alone: Brenda coaxes a roomful of teenage girls at risk at Paul Robeson High School to discuss their own histories of abuse, and one by one each child shares her story. One was raped at 11, another at 14. A third girl talks with benumbed calm about being raped at 8 by her mother’s friend, and her efforts to protect her 4-year-old sister from meeting the same fate. The stories couldn’t be more harrowing, but perhaps what’s most disturbing and moving is the mostly tear-free fortitude with which the girls share these horrors. Listening patiently, Brenda doesn’t flinch once her own story is just as bad, if not worse and neither does Longinotto’s camera.

Production companies: A Showtime presentation of a Rise Films, Green Acres Films, Vixen Films production
With: Brenda Myers-Powell, Stephanie Daniels-Wilson
Director: Kim Longinotto
Producers: Lisa Stevens, Teddy Leifer
Executive producers: Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully
Cinematographer: Kim Longinotto
Editor: Ollie Huddleston
Sales: The Film Sales Company (North America); Dogwoof Global (world sales)

No rating, 98 minutes