With echoes of Bonnie and Clyde and movies set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Dreamland feels familiar and original at the same time. The film follows Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) a teenager on the cusp of manhood. When Eugene was just five years old, his father left. The only contact Eugene has with him after that is a postcard that came when he was six in which his father wrote about the paradise he’d found in Mexico. His father’s words spark Eugene’s imagination, and that combined with his appetite for outlaw comics fuel his daydreams of leaving his drought-stricken rural town of Bismarck, Texas.
Then, he finds Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), a wanted bank robber, hiding out in his family’s abandoned barn. While he could turn her in for the hefty bounty, once he lays eyes on her, it’s clear that’s never going to happen. Instead, Allison quickly takes control of the situation, getting Eugene to tend to the gunshot wound she sustained during her escape from her latest bank robbery and enlisting his help to find a car so she can flee Bismarck. Much of what happens after that is fairly predictable as Eugene decides to leave with Allison, who plans to head to Mexico.
Yet, this isn’t an inspirational tale about following your dreams, it’s a cautionary coming-of-age story about how dreams can lead to tragedy. Of course, it’s also easy to see why Eugene would be taken in by Allison. She may be covered in blood and dirt when he meets her but she still looks like Margot Robbie, and she knows exactly what to say to make Eugene trust her. The movie indicates Allison is lying about how deadly she’s been in her past exploits, but whether she’s truthful about everything else she tells him is left open to interpretation, even as Eugene ultimately chooses to believe her.
Although Eugene’s choices don’t come as much of a surprise, the movie is shot in a way that makes his story feel magical. Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte cuts away to a square aspect ratio to convey Eugene and Allison’s fantasies, while director of photography Lyle Vincent’s widescreen cinematography of the Dust Bowl landscape gorgeously conveys the beauty and bleakness of Eugene’s surroundings. Meanwhile, screenwriter Nicolaas Zwart’s decision to include narration by Eugene’s sister as an adult (Lola Kirke) throughout the film makes the story feel like a fable. The movie is deliberately paced, and for the most part, its more languid sequences contribute to the overall tone, although the middle feels a bit drawn out, taking longer than necessary to get to Eugene’s inevitable decision to run away with Allison.
Nonetheless, interest in the story is sustained by the cast’s fantastic performances. Robbie is as luminous as ever, and while this isn’t as showy a role as her turns as Tanya Harding and Harley Quinn, she still gives Allison layers of complexity. Cole matches her by conveying the naivete and dreams that lead Eugene to get swept up by Allison. Travis Fimmel as Eugene’s strict stepfather, Kerry Condon as his understanding mother and Darby Camp as his protective younger sister are also excellent, contributing to the verisimilitude of the narrative.
Dreamland is slow and wistful but mostly maintains its narrative momentum as a lyrical story supported by lovely photography and creative editing. It ultimately isn’t a hopeful story, but it still enchants with its depiction of the romanticism of youthful fantasy and tragedy of adult reality.