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Pope Dreams

Other // Unrated // August 26, 2008
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted September 18, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Writer/director Patrick Hogan fills his debut effort "Pope Dreams" with all sorts of contrivances, then cleverly finds ways to not make them contrivances. The set-ups seem familiar but the payoffs are fresh and honest, as the film makes a wonderful attempt to find the humanity and the realism of its characters.

The film is a low-key, gentle tale of Andy (Philip Vaden), nineteen years old, out of school, drifting through suburbia. He plays the drums in a heavy metal band, but that's more for passing time than for actual ambition. He spends his days working the warehouse at his dad's electronics store, but that, too, is just a paycheck and a way to waste the hours. His only true goal is to arrange a visit to the Vatican for his dying mother (Julie Hagerty, in an outstanding, restrained performance), a devout Catholic with pictures of recent Popes all over the house.

In another movie, a dumber movie, Andy would find a way to realize this wish, to either comical or dramatic effect, ending with a tearjerk ending with mom getting wheeled in to meet the pontiff. But Hogan's screenplay doesn't want that route. Instead, it shows us Andy's obsession (which, by the way, never dominates the story, another smart move) as it relates to his coping. While his family sits shell shocked over mom's impending death, Andy, seen here as the closest of the children to the mother, struggles in vain to make her last days happy, even if it means concocting impossible schemes.

Hogan then opens up the scope of his story to make this a coming-of-age tale, centering on a time in life to which many of us can relate: that moment of directionless drift. Andy has no plans for the future, no dreams, no hopes. By the end of the film, he will realize his mistakes, broaden his worldview, find direction, but until then, he wanders, lost in his own youth.

There's a terrific relationship between Andy and his father, played by the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. Here, we get all those father-son confrontations you may expect - dad wants Andy to take a job Andy doesn't want; dad yells at Andy for not being home when the mother needed him - but the script filters these moments through the realistic side of the characters. These aren't phony arguments dropped into the screenplay in order to create fake conflict. These are real arguments that sound achingly familiar to any teen who's ever squabbled with a parent.

Hogan layers these scenes with Andy's yearnings for independence (albeit a desire with no real outlet) and the father's hidden fears over losing the love of his life. In one key scene, Andy spies his father weeping uncontrollably. No reason is spelled out, but we understand anyway. "Pope Dreams" is filled with tiny moments like this, bits that reveal new sides to the characters and new depths to the story.

(Tobolowsky, whose performance here is never less than pitch-perfect, is later required to deliver a speech that goes a little too far in spelling out the movie's themes and messages. And yet the actor takes these words and makes them work wonderfully, delivering one of the film's most emotionally effectual moments.)

Romance enters the picture when Andy encounters Brady (Marnette Patterson), a college student who concocts a scheme to reunite with the boyfriend that her father (David Shatraw) doesn't like. Her plan: pick up a greasy rocker, go on a few dates, brag to date about the rocker's wild ways, then wait as dad realizes the old beau wasn't too bad a guy in comparison. Things fall apart once she picks skinny, shy Andy, who turns out to be quite mild mannered and non-threatening, far from the heavy metal stereotype she wanted.

Again, watch how Hogan tackles this idea. Rather than make the movie about the deception - that old romantic comedy standby where a relationship is formed on a lie, which leads to a break up, then a last-minute make-up - Hogan takes the angle that things should progress more naturally. The teens are unexpectedly charmed by each other, and these scenes are more about how when you're dating, you're thrust into someone else's world, away from the comforts of your own. When the ex-boyfriend returns, the event is not used for cheap conflict. In fact, there is no conflict at all, beyond a somber realization or two on Andy's part. Hogan is not interested in retelling romance clich├ęs.

The screenplay does trip itself up in its second half, with a storyline in which Brady's dad, a struggling songwriter, discovers a song Andy has penned (the song was dedicated to Brady, in one of the film's lovelier moments) and attempts to talk the teen into helping out in writing a Broadway musical he hopes to sell. Hogan never seems clear on where this story should go; is this a genuine break for Andy, or is Brady's dad and his writing partner (Rex Smith) merely using him? The movie hints at one angle, then another, then back again, and this whole section of the plot feels too far removed from the honest realism of the rest of the story. (Also an issue is a slideshow of news clippings that runs over the closing credits, revealing Andy's future; it's overly hopeful and equally disconnected from reality, undermining the "some dreams are just dreams" themes of the rest of the film.)

Of course, we could cheat by suggesting the movie isn't fleshing out Brady's dad's intents as a way to portray Andy's own reluctance over the deal. But even if it is just a sign of a problematic story turn not properly developed, Hogan is still able to create a great sense of emotional honesty through Andy's reaction to having such a potentially big opportunity arrive at the same time his mother approaches death.

There are other awkward moments sprinkled throughout (mainly toward the beginning, as Hogan sets his stage), yet even here, the cast shines. Vaden, a relative newcomer, is a real find, expertly handling all these levels with great ease. Patterson is equally capable, allowing the surprising aspects of her character to thrive. This is a terrific cast that anchors a completely character-driven drama, lifting up the clunkier parts that don't work, elevating all the parts that do.


Video & Audio

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks pretty clean and crisp considering the movie's low budget roots. Darker scenes reveal some grain and compression issues, but nothing distracting. For the most part, colors are bold and lines are sharp.

There's no need for a 5.1 soundtrack mix, considering the film's low key use of dialogue, yet here it is, and it sounds just fine. Hogan has a background in sound design, which may explain the solid balance between dialogue and music. An equally strong 2.0 track is also included. No subtitles are provided, although the disc does support closed captioning.


Hogan and producer Steve Loh provide a chatty commentary track that discusses in length the tricks of putting together a small independent film. It's a lively, interesting track.

"Pope Dreams: Bloopers, Deleted Scenes, and Extra Tidbits" (8:15; 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) is a fun compilation of all sorts of cutting room floor odds and ends. It's a smart way of gathering clips that otherwise would be too short, or too dull, or too whatever to include on their own.

The film's trailer (2:46; 1.85:1 anamorphic) rounds out the set. Trailers for "Outsourced" and "The Family Holiday" play as the disc loads.

Final Thoughts

"Pope Dreams" has a welcome honesty and heart to it that, when bolstered by such skillful performances, makes it well worth hunting down. Recommended.
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