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Does Margot Robbie’s Back Hurt From Carrying “Dreamland?”

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, “Dreamland” is Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s sophomore directorial effort. With a limited theatrical release on Nov. 13, and a video on demand (VOD) release on Nov. 17, the film remains pretty isolated from the public consciousness. However, Margot Robbie plays more than just the lead character; she is the post that keeps this depression-era film from fading into dusty obscurity. 

Taking place in 1935 in the small Texas town of Bismark, “Dreamland” tells the story of an adolescent boy named Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) who dreams of escaping his arid surroundings. In the midst of ravenous dust storms and rampant bankruptcy, Evans escapes his own life by reading crime stories in his family’s abandoned barn. One night, he finds himself inside his own crime novel when he stumbles upon the wanted bank robber and alleged killer Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), injured and hiding in the unused barn.

Creating a name for herself in the U.S. less than a decade ago with films such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Focus,” it is difficult to cast Robbie in a movie without her making it her own. “Dreamland” is no exception. Having already proven herself as an actress with extensive range, Robbie’s performance as Wells is another role worthy of being tacked onto the list of impressive film credits. Although she doesn’t reach the emotional highs that were demanded of her in “I, Tonya,” she takes what little is given to her and becomes her own character.

With a relatively unknown director, original screenplay and no other stars of the same caliber, it is no question that Robbie’s casting was the biggest draw for potential viewers. 

However, a notable performance also comes from Cole, who plays the male protagonist, Eugene Evans. Like Robbie, there’s this sense that Cole was given very little in regards to his character, often leading to great acting in scenes that felt undeserving of it. In the film, it feels as if Evans gives nothing for Robbie’s character, Wells, to build off of. This leads to a relationship between the two that feels unfulfilling and nonsensical. This comes as a surprise when considering an interview Robbie had with Collider where she spoke about Cole being a “perfect scene partner,” saying “it’s a dream come true when you work with someone who both pushes you but is always there for you.” Despite the alleged chemistry and admirable acting from both actors individually, many emotional scenes wind up feeling nothing more than unwarranted. 

This emotional and romantic dissonance is only worsened when thinking about the ages of the characters. Though never directly stated, it is clear that the characters of Evans and Wells have a noticeable age gap. It even goes as far as being a recurring and significant conflict between the two. In their first encounter, Wells asks Evans his age, and he replies with “25,” though this is a blatant lie. In a later scene, Evans becomes fed up with being referred to as “kid” by the robber, which leads to an uncomfortable shower scene. As with any coming-of-age film, the question of Evan’s maturity is a common theme. Taking into consideration the character’s ages, however, presents problems about the idea of “manhood” and begs the question, how would it be perceived if the genders were switched?

Even while taking place during the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, this film finds a way to immerse you into the intensity of the otherwise lifeless set. Using a wide variety of camera angles — from stalking aerial views to lingering wide shots and imposing extreme low angle shots — “Dreamland” creates a space filled with both tension and playfulness, and sometimes fear. The film’s soundscape also plays an important role. The score, composed by experimental composer Patrick Higgins, provides an appropriate background to the time period while also adding the tension of staccato strings and discordant piano keys. With only a handful of jarring sound and musical cues with occasional juxtaposing tones between a scene and its music, most of the audio adds to scenes that would have been otherwise bland and stale. 

Feeling like pretty familiar territory, “Dreamland” breaks no new ground. It could even be considered a decent addition to the criminal romance subgenre, if not for it’s highly questionable age gap. Although the subgenre’s focus is on “love that defies all, even the law,” it seems as if “Dreamland” took that idea slightly too literally. 

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Intern for the fall 2020 quarter. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.