At the beginning of Garrett Bradley’s film Below Dreams, we drop in right beside three characters as they make long bus or car trips to New Orleans. Each of them know the details of their background, but we learn very little of their specifics. The way the film plays, we are close observers, chasing after Elliott, a wandering searcher type from New York City, or crammed into a bus aisle hovering over Leann, a single mother of four young children. There is also Jamaine, a lively young man who seems too sweet to be carrying around the designation of convicted felon that is his main obstacle to employment and the stability that comes with it.
We’re never given more than a glimpse of backstory, but that’s not essential to any of what follows. Bradley wants to demonstrate her characters’ states of being, not explain the cause and effect of their situation. Below Dreams is a chance to feel alongside these characters as people, not representatives of under-represented archetypes. As Bradley told me, “this film counteracts the current imagery of wealthy 20 somethings who've gone to private liberal arts schools and are in disgruntled romantic relationships and can’t get jobs. This film is proof that there are other narratives, other realities existing simultaneously.”
Bradley wrote the film after spending time on long bus trips herself and talking with people her age about their motivations and experiences. This is her first feature film after being a part of many art films. As a truly independent film with a very small budget, the cast is a mix of trained and untrained actors whom Bradley guided through months of rehearsals and emotional preparation then shot in many instances out in public. A cross section of the young generation of working New Orleans musicians appears as well: trumpeter Mario Abney, vocalist Meschiya Lake, and bounce artist Vokah Redu.
Each character is hoping to find a situation that they can begin to build on in New Orleans. Elliott is following after a girl he met who has moved there. Jamaine is returning home out of necessity, and Leann is hoping to use her mother’s place as a temporary base while she rejoins a path that leads to a modeling and acting career. The popular sentiment about New Orleans being a cheaper, more welcoming place to live for those with little capital or advantages is still going strong, but that situation is currently being challenged as the city’s rents and property values rise. Competition for entry-level jobs is fierce, and the efficacy of social welfare and government programs are overwhelmed by the demand.
While many cities across the south are facing these problems, Bradley says New Orleans was an ideal setting because of the balance between dreams that can be obtained and the chronic obstruction to a better life that exists there. She says, “the three characters in the film are directly engaged with these very specific, local and current realities. So, while the struggles are universal, the dependence, the disadvantages, et cetera, are very much linked to this place and couldn’t in my opinion be illustrated in such a way, in any other city.”
The city takes a role alongside the characters, with shots lingering on action in the background after the characters have moved out of frame. Establishing shots are few and far between; most scenes begin right up close to someone or in the middle of an exchange. The fluidity of the movie is a strength, empowered by the soft but beating soundtrack by Brian McOmber (formerly of the Dirty Projectors). While the phrase “dreamlike” seems too supernatural to apply, the film often pauses to focus on some imagery instead of action and very often lands right on the one short moment that it wants to capture then takes off again, especially in Elliott’s almost too insubstantial character arc.
Bradley says, “My hope was to create a level of engagement with the film where the distinction between ones own observation and the observation of the camera become blurred. The eyes of the camera, I hope, come to feel like their own.”
The dance between brief and long takes increases our awareness of the uncertainty the characters are steeped in. Time isn’t counted off for us, but the impatience is real. In one scene the camera follows Leann as she tries to get her four kids (one slung on her side) down the street from the bus station to an ice cream shop. Locked into the slow, kid-paced walk, watching her corral their divergent focus, we feel her energy deplete.
We are also there while the characters receive advice from peers and pseudo-mentors, or are subject to the insistence of others to make a decision. While the struggle to establish yourself against both internal and external expectations is universal, Bradley wanted to show the alternative to the stereotypical constantly connected Millennial moving from wifi access point to access point.
Bradley says Below Dreams reflects the landscape where “knowledge is [shared] on a more intimate level from one person to the next, circulated amongst communities who aren’t given information as a right. For instance, clarity on one’s right to vote and the details of how. In a lot of cases, the only place that’s really available to you is another person, even if they’re a stranger.”
The film succeeds in providing a generous space to consider these alternate struggles and conflicts, but there is little resolution of the story. That’s not to say it’s lacking: the final scene is a single, emotional take that captures all the anxiety and frustration of being uncertain but still willing to pursue the intangible goal of independence. The film is a counterpoint to the easy, opinionated storylines of popular media, and so it has no easy ending. Sometimes even in our dreams the laws of nature and the rules of reality still apply.
Below Dreams screens at the New Orleans Film Festival Saturday, October 18 at 8:30PM at the Joy Theater and again Thursday, October 20 at 3:30PM at the Prytania Theater. Both screenings will be followed by a (Q&A with the filmmakers. The premiere screening will have a live performance by Vockah Redu & Cru as well.
Garrett Bradley will also participate in the panel discussion “What is ‘Black Film’? A Conversation on Black Voices in Cinema” on Sunday, October 18 at 2PM at the Contemporary Arts Center. Get details and tickets here.
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary.