[Beyond Fest 2023 Review] DREAM SCENARIO

It’s always great to see a filmmaker who is interested in taking filmmaking in different and uncomfortable directions. As a newcomer to Kristoffer Borgli’s films, I was in for a very pleasant and somewhat shocking surprise. Borgli previously was represented at Beyond Fest 2022 with his film Sick of Myself, which was part of a series focusing on up-and-coming directors and films. Had I made it out to see the film last year, I might have had more of an idea of what DREAM SCENARIO had in store for me. Which goes to prove that it’s really important to watch the new films that have less press during Beyond Fest. The fact that Borgli returned a year later with a film starring Nicolas Cage with the closing film slot at the festival was not lost on me and other film fans. Borgli should definitely be on your radar.

The synopsis for DREAM SCENARIO is simple yet wild: “Hapless family man Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) finds his life turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams. But when his nighttime appearances take a nightmarish turn, Paul is forced to navigate his newfound stardom in this wickedly entertaining comedy from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) and producer Ari Aster.”

What DREAM SCENARIO does is subject a very ordinary character to a full immersion into the terror of suddenly becoming a celebrity, especially if you are just an ordinary person who never intended to become a worldwide celebrity. Nicolas Cage gives the role of Paul Matthews pathos and repressed anger. It’s another profoundly human and wonderfully illuminating performance to add to his gallery of great roles. Cage has always been a very dedicated and skilled actor, but his performances have gone to new heights after his work of wounded, vengeful fury in Mandy, his delicate and soulful grief in Pig, and his hilarious star turn as Dracula in Renfield. He just keeps taking chances and making great choices in roles in truly fascinating films. His work is so intensely watchable.

Courtesy A24

DREAM SCENARIO dabbles with themes about the delights and horrors of fame, which gives further depth to the casting of Cage. Nicolas Cage has made a previous film, a much lighter and comedic film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which nonetheless touched on the peculiarities of fame and its effect on people. Seeing these themes re-surface under a different scope makes it resonate differently.

As always, I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but the atmosphere of comedic terror reverberates through this film from start to finish. The film posits: what if you were suddenly a benign Freddy Krueger in thousands of people’s dreams? Maybe millions?

How would you deal with everyone’s questions, desire to have contact with you, and, in some cases, the people who want something from you? The film attacks the strange phenomena of fame in one of the best ways and is very timely because the incidences of people becoming famous instantly for doing almost nothing have increased as social media spreads videos and photos of people doing things that people connect with. It shows how gratifying and overwhelming being a celebrity can be and how a change in perception can ruin your life. Matthews is a man who has always wanted to be more important, but once he is, he has no idea what to do.

The rest of the cast is also doing great work. Julianne Nicholson as his bewildered and no-nonsense wife; Michael Cera, as a marketing guy on the make; Dylan Baker as the colleague that he’s always wanted to impress; Dylan Gelula as an awkward assistant at the marketing company, with Tim Meadows, Amber Midthunder, Kate Berlant, and Noah Centineo. You’ll notice that many of these actors are comedians, and that’s because the film is a comedy, albeit one with dark edges. Borgli has a great flair with actors and directing this kind of comedic character study that doesn’t have pity for its characters but searches for understanding.

Filming took place in Toronto, so the film has the look of the Pacific Northwest in warm tones and the sweater weather in late fall. It very much has the small-town vibe with a feeling of comfort in the production design and wardrobe that juxtaposes longingly with the increasingly uncomfortable events.

The film does have its serious side but is, at heart, a black comedy. I will say that it has a scene where I laughed as hard as I ever have in a theater. The scene was filled with tension and suspense, and the moment that it led up to make the audience and myself roar with laughter and surprise. Immediately afterward, I felt bad because it had to be humiliating for the character involved. I wouldn’t call this film and the scene embarrassment comedy or cringe comedy because it has a more humanistic intent than just making you laugh at someone. The scenes where Paul Matthews is humiliated make it possible for you to empathize with his emotionally reserved and somewhat pompous personality. It’s a portrait of a man who has been told his whole life that he should be important but one day found that he was not.

One theme that is less articulated but left to the audience to muse on is the concept of a collective unconsciousness that we are all connected to. Is Paul Matthews a psychic who can astrally project into other people’s dreams? Are we, as a race of mammals, tapping into his dreams, which makes him appear to us while asleep? Then, of course, if this psychic ability or mental connection exists, how long would it take for someone to try and monetize it?

Courtesy A24

This quiet theme within DREAM SCENARIO is left to the viewer’s imagination mostly. How did it happen? When we think of things like psychic powers, we often scoff and think that only certain people might have them, but where do our intuition and creativity come from? What if it is something that we all have? Paul Matthews is as ordinary as they come. It opens your mind to questions about the nature of dreams, our brains and consciousness, and what our minds do when we aren’t thinking about them. How little do we really understand those aspects of ourselves? One of the things that I liked best about the film is that it gives you things to contemplate after you are done watching it.

Driven by the twin motors of another fearless Nicholas Cage performance and the inventive filmmaking of Kristoffer Borgli, DREAM SCENARIO is an utterly outrageous comedy of terrors where dreams fracture reality.

DREAM SCENARIO had its West Coast Premiere at the 2023 Beyond Fest. The film will be released in theaters on November 10, 2023.

Dolores Quintana
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