MEAN DREAMS begins with a snake and ends with an apple. In between it is less bible story than a stark noir set in the bucolic autumnal countryside where Jonas (Josh Wiggins) and Casey (Sophie Nélisse), two emotionally damaged teenagers, meet and become each other’s unlikely salvation.
Each is the child of fathers that are, for one reason or another, incapable of parenting. It’s a subtle thing as the film begins. Jonas’ hard-bitten rancher of father (Joe Cobden) rebuking him for setting a snake free deep in the woods instead of killing it. It’s how he meets Casey, the motherless new girl in the area with whom he strikes up a sweetly awkward conversation. Casey’s policeman father (Bill Paxton), on the other hand, is more affable, but somehow more foreboding. It’s the way Casey shrinks ever so imperceptibly as he praises the way she’s taken their move, and the undeniable emotional tension as he insists that she feel the place on his neck where the artery pulses to prove to her that he’s calm about his first day on a new job.
They sense a kindred spirit in each other, and more than sense that their parents don’t approve. Jonas’ mother slams the door in Casey’s face. Casey’s father, at that moment when most parents invite their kid’s friend to stay for dinner, smilingly opines that his family must have a good dinner waiting for him at his own home. The smile is steely. There is no mistaking the message, any more than the one sent by the slammed door. Paxton, in one of his last performances, is a diabolical blend of fresh-faced wholesomeness and pure evil.
Eventually, Casey’s plight is revealed when her father starts beating her for coming home late after spending the day with her new friend. Jonas, still within earshot, attempts to stop him. He is almost drowned for his effort by the older, but stronger, man.
The helplessness of the two, the way no one in that small town will take the word of a poor rancher’s son over that of a police officer about how he treats his daughter, is juxtaposed against Jonas’ determination to do something. Anything. Including confronting Casey’s father, who, with a smile even steelier, explains to Jonas exactly what will happen to him and to his family if he pursues his daughter. When Jonas confides in his father, he’s told to mind his own business and get on with his life.
Secrets are revealed, sending the pair on the run, and all the while the growing desperation as they try to outrun their lives becomes almost unbearable. Director Nathan Morlando takes his time, paying attention to details of character, keeping the performances of Wiggins and Nélisse true to kids whose emotional abuse by their fathers has flattened their affect while not quite killing their spirit. They remain oddly, sweetly innocent, though even as the struggle between the raw need for a real emotional connection, and capitulation to what they can’t imagine escaping is a palpable presence, When Casey tells Jonas that he should be afraid of her father as both a warning and a plea, the quiet way she says it is crushing,
MEAN DREAMS takes fine advantage of the premise of blameless people caught up in a deadly situation they neither caused nor can control. Brief moments of happiness vie with a precarious safety that evaporates without warning, where no one can be trusted. Emotions fray, chances become progressively desperate, and nothing is guaranteed.