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Thursday 2 May 2013

Waking (2013)

Director: Ben Shelton
Stars: Skyler Caleb and Meg Cionni
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Waking is one of those movies you leave with a warm feeling deep inside, as if part of the universe has just fallen back into natural alignment. It's not perfect, though it is a highly enjoyable picture. It's not always happy, though it makes up for it in the end. It's not even particularly ambitious, as it plays it straight throughout, ruthlessly refusing to follow up on hints at different, more complex, readings. But what it does, it does very well indeed, and standard descriptions are going to fail to do it justice. It's a romance, you see. With a light hearted tone, an element of fantasy and a sense of destiny. Now, be honest: how many guys reading this immediately tuned out? Well, you should all start paying attention again. This isn't a chick flick and it isn't an unrealistic romcom featuring someone who used to be in Friends. You don't have to see it on the Lifetime Channel with breaks for tampon commercials. You can actually sit down and enjoy it with your girlfriend. Honestly.

Clearly it's a story that matters to Skyler Caleb; not only did he write it, sourced from a dream no less, but he also plays the lead role of Ben. No, that dream didn't play out for real the way that it does here, but then that's life; this is a movie, a 95 minute gift from the dream factory. It follows its own rules, ones that only Ben seems willing to believe in, and if that isn't a great definition for a love story, I don't know what is. You see, something fundamental isn't quite right in Ben's life, even though his girlfriend is moving back from Chicago to be with him. She's starting a new job; he already has one, working for her dad. These are stereotypical happy scenes, especially at the beginning of a movie, but they're deliberately just a little off. It isn't just that Ben is a little klutzy, it's that he isn't as enthused about it all as he should be and as he thinks he should be. He and Amy are good people but they don't appear to think on the same level. The chemistry isn't right.

The fact that Ben's mind isn't in the right place is underlined in bold red ink in the pivotal scene in the park. He's riding his bike to work because his car won't start, but work and everything else are promptly sucked out of his mind when he catches sight of a young lady who's sitting on the grass reading a book. He immediately crashes, both physically and mentally, but while he recovers his breath and his dignity soon enough in her charming company, the incident and especially the girl remain stuck in his mind. More importantly, they remain stuck in his dreams where they build the story and set Ben moving along a rollercoaster of a story arc to a date with destiny. Now, Park Girl is certainly a vision to behold, the ethereal Meg Cionni a shoe in to steal anyone's breath; but he's not only dreaming about her, he's dreaming about his childhood and the little girl he grew up with and played with all the time. You won't win a prize for guessing that they're one and the same.
I like these dreams because they follow dream logic. Director Ben Shelton refuses to give us the moments we're conditioned to expect, those clich├ęd moments where eyes close slowly so that we can be sure we're not in Kansas any more. Instead he throws us straight into Ben's dreams, which we only realise gradually because of how they unfold. For instance, during one conversation with Park Girl, she reveals that she moved to Sacramento, even though she's clearly talking to him in the very same park in which they just met. He must be dreaming and rationalising the disconnect away in that recognisable way that dreams mash up mutually exclusive events. By this point, we can't even be sure that the first meeting was real, though I presume it was, or if all those scenes with them as kids are real, though I presume they were really dreams. What we know is that Ben can't stop dreaming about Nadia, for that's her name, and he's been doing it for a very long time.

What makes this romantic instead of creepy is that we quickly discover that while Ben dreamed about Nadia, Nadia also dreamed about Ben. These aren't the dreams of either of them, they're the dreams of both. They grew up together in dreamland. That's the fantastic conclusion that we and Ben both reach when Nadia gives him her phone number in a dream, he rings it the next day and reaches her voicemail. Of course, we have a whole slew of questions at this point. Are we to take this as a straight romantic fantasy, or is something else going on? Is Ben exploring his doubts about his relationship and his future through therapy? After all, he works with Amy's dad, who is a therapist, sitting on his sessions. His mother is a therapist too. Is he regressing to his childhood under hypnosis? Is he even real, or merely a therapy session for Eddie, the patient we see? Is he schizophrenic? Is he clairvoyant, being visited by Nadia's ghost? Oh yes, I had questions.

I wonder how Waking would have played if Caleb's script was more interested in complexities like these. The neat way Shelton takes us in and out of dreams suggests that it could have become a delectable layer cake of different readings. I'm looking forward to watching it again with hindsight to see how many of those layers are there and whether those readings are viable, but my first run played out as a straight romantic fantasy rooted in a few simple but engaging ideas. Firstly, the girl of your dreams could be literally the girl of your dreams. Secondly, it could go both ways: you could be the boy of her dreams too. Thirdly, and most importantly for this story, what would you do if you realised for a fact that the girl of your dreams was real? What would you give up? How much would you give up? What if you have a girlfriend who cares about you? What if you just got engaged to her? What if you work with her dad and hope to take over his practice one day?
I liked Ben, as klutzy as he is. He's like a human tumbleweed, ending up wherever outside forces leave him, vaguely content with his lot but never really where he should be. Skyler Caleb ought to have understood what Ben needed to do, given that he created him and wrote his story, and it's his film throughout, whoever else he gets to share it with. Tara Erickson does a good job as Amy, an awkward part because she's tasked with being desirable but not too much; being a believable girlfriend for Ben but not enough to stop him retaining a girl of his dreams. I liked Steve Moulton too as Ben's best friend Mark. He's suitably large and brusque, just right as a straight man, voice of reason and sounding board all in one. He shares a couple of great scenes, albeit unimportant ones in the grand scheme of things, with Alison Haislip, who leapt into the public eye last month with her excellent reading of the infamous Delta Gamma sorority e-mail.

Best of all, Meg Cionni is utterly perfect as Nadia. As a small bundle of delight who clearly has fairy blood somewhere in her family tree, she's a believable dream girl, never an easy part to cast. She does a great job in the ways you might expect, but she also somehow does something immensely important in a way I still can't quite fathom. In most films, Nadia would be the point, the focus of our attention as well as Ben's. Do you remember the two nerds in Weird Science​? I don't; I never saw past Kelly LeBrock. Here though, we follow Ben as he follows Nadia. She flits in and out of his dreams and thus our story, but somehow she never lets us lose track that she's a destination and we have to follow Ben on that journey. I don't know how Nadia can be so magnetic but not steal every scene she's in. It can't come down to screen time; it has to tie to the way Cionni plays her, as if she's real but not real all at once. Whatever it is, she absolutely nails it.

Bizarrely, she's the only member of the top billed cast who I've seen before and I didn't remotely recognise her from an upcoming horror movie called Buck Wild. She's not remotely like this in that film, but I'll have to wait for its release so I can compare her work; either that or I'll torture myself with Supergator in the name of research. With a dozen films and a few TV episodes to her name, she's more experienced than most of the cast, though the therapists have her beat. Jean Smart, who plays Ben's mother, is on what seems like every TV show known to man and she has a trio of Emmys for her work, a pair of them for Frasier; in any other company, Tim Daly, who's Amy's dad, would be the most experienced TV actor on the cast list. He was only nominated for an Emmy, for his role in The Sopranos. At the end of the day, this is Skyler Caleb's film though. He's known as an actor more than a writer, but the latter is the more important role here. I hope he writes again.

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