Tuesday, February 27, 2018

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM: The Teen Comedy That Isn't

by Stephanie Crawford

Have you ever loved a movie as a kid that you didn't actually understand?

I'd come across quite a few as a precocious (see: sneaky) only child, but none loomed larger than 1989's Dream A Little Dream. The film lives up to its name in myriad ways, from its snapshot-Thirtysomething-esque editing in its introduction to a cast that pairs the likes of Jason Robards, Piper Laurie and Harry Dean Stanton with Le Deux Coreys (the powerhouses of Corey Feldman and Corey Haim, of course). In a decade rife with experimental and boundary-pushing films, Dream managed to carve a niche within a niche for itself at the tail-end of a decade that was both stuffed full of groundbreaking work and filled to the point of near-obscenity with baby boomer nostalgia.

As a very young child in the '90s, armed with a previously viewed VHS from the Smith's grocery store chain of this movie, I was ill-prepared to grapple with its themes of generation gaps, new and old love, aging and Corey Feldman's hairstyles. (It's not exactly a mullet or a rat tail, but it's a style that definitely incorporates both.) Still, I loved the movie, and I dearly wanted to be Meredith Salenger in it, so I watched it on a weekly basis. Revisiting it in 2018 brought a lot of things to light, except that I still don't understand Feldman's look, and I still do want to be Meredith Salenger.
Bobby (Feldman) is your average '80s movie kid: Ultimately he's a nice guy, but he's relentlessly a "cool" teenager. Among his minor sins is taking a daily shortcut through the flowers in front of Coleman (Robards) and Gina's (Laurie) place. While Bobby has a stunning blonde girlfriend (Lala Sloatman, a niece of Frank Zappa!) he really only has time for two things: his best friend, Haim's Dinger (from the proud '80s tradition that gave us sidekick names like "Boner" and wow, now I just want to call him Haimdinger) and Salenger's Lainie, who's already dating Joel (William McNamara), a "cool guy" who's friends with the Coreys rather than bullying them, which was an interesting change to a convention.

These aren't your grandpappy's "get off my lawn" older folk battling them, though. Coleman meditates and studies psychic transference, and he's eager to get his wife in on the deal. Their relationship is one of the film's strengths: Coleman and Gina are absolutely in love, and their chemistry is adorable. As much as Piper Laurie's character doesn't buy into any of it, she's supportive, which is the most those of us with strange hobbies can ever ask for of our significant others.
This is 1989, though, so we're capping a decade that brought us Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son, 18 Again, All Of Me and Big. If two people weren't swapping bodies to learn some kind of lesson, then you better believe their soul was getting transferred into a different kind of body because, dammit, some lessons can only be learned by situations where you have to desperately explain to someone that you aren't REALLY you, you're actually this other person, and by the way, Harry Dean Stanton takes that conversational burden here and handles it like a champ.

So after a bicycle accident that you kind of have to just let yourself buy, Coleman is now fully Feldman, and Gina, because of her skepticism I suppose, has about 20% of herself in Salenger. There are sweet and strange moments, and, of course, we get a montage scene of Coleman trying on and criticizing Bobby's wardrobe ("At least he has a nice body!") but the highlights for me are three-fold. One, Feldman uses this as an excuse to start dressing and acting like Michael Jackson, as he's wont to do, and two, Robards and Feldman occasionally meet and taunt each other in a blue-tinged dream world.

"What, you expected Freddy Krueger?"
"Who's Freddy Krueger?"
"Ah, he's before your time."

Lastly, Bobby's parents are played by a bewildered Victoria Jackson and Alex Rocco, and God bless whoever made that casting choice. Once Bobby is Coleman, he articulates why they both need to be more engaged parents to the stressed-out teenager, and every scene it happens in is just beautiful.
There's a vague timetable of when things need to be set right, but if you think anything is going to get solved before the big dance, then you need to watch more '80s movies. Everything will be tested, and a character who seemed cool before will end up being a piece of shit abuser that ends up terrorizing people with a gun. Break-ups, make-ups, impassioned speeches, and yes: lessons are learned. All throughout, Haimdinger wins my heart by being a loyal friend while stylishly using a cane for his broken foot. For an added subplot, please feel free to subscribe to my headcanon where Dinger actually needs that cane because he himself was possessed by a senior citizen, but he doesn't want to draw attention to himself.

Roger Ebert hated Dream A Little Dream, giving it one star while complaining about a misleading ad campaign and citing the heavy load of body swap pictures he'd had to sit through the past handful of years. I like going back and seeing how trends affected film critics, and I can't help but wonder what they'd think of some of them if they ever bothered to revisit them.
There are definite weaknesses in Dream, and the plot and some of the character beats are no strangers to inconsistency. Still, there's a kind of feeling it has that helps it stand apart from the other soul-swapping movies. It takes its subject and relationships seriously while constantly but gently acknowledging how absurd the concept is. The generation gap issue here is handled with a lot of respect as well, with the older folk being shown as being sharp people who still have love and social lives: They just know better to not stomp on people's yards or have hairstyles that just aren't sensible.

Dream A Little Dream isn't a typical teen or body swap movie, and despite its conventions, it manages to be the best kind of "dated." This film is a sliver of a strange time period that was itself obsessed with time. Kids who watched movies on tiny black and white televisions and at the drive-in were now filmmakers who were seeing their work appear on video and TV after a year or so after release, and I can't help but imagine that was one of the many issues that put aging in the forefront of a vast amount of plots back then, whether people stayed in their own bodies or not. Technology now moves almost instantaneously, but the 1980s were when advancements really started picking up, so age differences came into even sharper relief, and Hollywood was there to make zany movies about it.
Dream A Little Dream isn't zany, thankfully. It's sweet, sincere, slightly goofy, slightly strange, and a lot of fun. Ultimately, it's about love and respect. You pair that with a great soundtrack, some dance numbers, and a freakishly amazing cast, and you have a movie I look forward to revisiting again. Someday.


  1. It really is interesting how trends might affect critics/public opinion. I think a lot of superhero movies are met with somewhat of a shrug simply because people are tired of comic book movies and all the crazy hype around them. I've been revisting some lately and have been really enjoying it. Sometimes it's easier to enjoy them after the hype has died and they've been mostly forgotten in the sea of the latest comic book flicks. I think years and years in the future we will look on this trend like the westerns of the 50s/60s and really enjoy the crazy experiment it all is.

    Anyway, this movie sounds right up my alley! I'll have to check it out.

  2. I remember seeing the last 15 minutes of this on cable repeatedly before eventually seeing the whole thing (at which point I'm fairly sure I was only marginally less baffled). It grew on me quite a bit over time though.

    I've never seen the sequel due to the words "magical sunglasses" being in the synopsis.

    1. "I've never seen the sequel due to the words "magical sunglasses" being in the synopsis." - that's the selling point!

  3. Wow that plot sounds...complicated. Which is...good.

  4. I caught up with this movie a few years ago and enjoyed it. Does anyone know the name of the mix of the titular song used in the credits? I remember not being able to find the exact track used, and it was not listed in the credits.

    1. Never mind! A quick YouTube search of the credits brings the track right up. Teachnology.

  5. Glad you mentioned the amazing soundtrack-- Van Morrison, Otis Redding...and I still have Where Is She by Blue Future in my playlist!