There are countless great films derived from works of literature, but many fewer great films based on plays. A play is almost perfectly designed to confound all but the most imaginative directors. They usually have visual cues written into the text, which can be helpful in designing a film. But they’re also defined by the limits of the stage, and many screenwriters and directors fail to expand the world of the play that was originally confined to what could be produced on the stage. The opening credits for Fugitive Dreams didn’t seem to augur anything positive after revealing it was based on a play by Caridad Svich. But the film, which is written and directed by Jason Neulander, is fleet and never weighed down by the story’s origins on the stage.
The film opens on a woman we learn later is named Mary (April Matthias). She’s alone in a desolate rural area and examining a shard of glass in her hands. Within minutes, she’s in the bathroom of an isolated gas station and starting to slice open her wrist. But before she makes any meaningful progress, another drifter bursts in and comically apologizes because the men’s room was taking too long. The man, who introduces himself as John (Robbie Tann), is fascinated by Mary and whatever drove her to try to kill herself. The two homeless drifters move on from the gas station and hop aboard an opening car on a freight train as the survey the empty countryside.
Fugitive Dreams creates an uncanny view of this unnamed North America. It seems so empty that one wonders if something terrible had befallen the country, perhaps a war, or a plague. There are groups of roving homeless people who travel by rail, as if in a depression-era film, or a fugitive-on-the-lam movie. A trip to a convenience store late in the film shows that it’s pretty much the same as one we would know, but the clerk eyes John and Mary and calls the police on a shoplifter with such speed that it suggests starving people have begun to steal en masse. Fugitive Dreams doesn’t explain why its world differs from our own, but it makes it more interesting to decode the little things that don’t quite fit.
Mary never states her destination, but John follows her like a puppy dog. He doesn’t have much of a backstory other than an older brother who was a police officer with a violent temper. There are magical realist elements to his story that evoke David Lynch, such as a vision he has of a field of Wizard of Oz–like red poppies in 8mm color, a contrast from the film’s lush black and white photography. Later, in another color section of the film, he meets a French–Canadian trader in the forest (Twin Peaks’ David Patrick Kelly) who bizarrely orders him to beat a mute mystic woman with a belt.
Neulander effectively expands the play by not confining his characters to any single space. Even when they’re in a freight car for extended periods, the rush of scenery through the open door helps expand the film. His dialogue isn’t always as strong a departure, and sometimes John and Mary lapse into overly flowery conversations with too many twists and turns. That sort of thing is tolerated in the theatre but doesn’t play as well on film. Fugitive Dreams is at its best when it favors simplicity, which it does often.
The Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual event is composed of scheduled live screenings, panels, and workshops, taking place from August 20th to September 2nd, 2020. For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival website.