Of all the hazards that await the recently paroled convict, recidivism is one of the most difficult to escape, given the ease with which a person on the fringes of society can fall into it. Consider the plight of Bambi (John Boyega), the center of Malik Vitthal’s empathetic character study Imperial Dreams. After doing time for some kind of incident involving a deadly weapon, Bambi returns home to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, to do right by his son Day (twins Justin and Ethan Coach) while Day’s mother Samaara (Keke Palmer) continues to serve her own sentence in county jail. Bambi has committed himself to living better than his past self, and even managed to get a short piece published in McSweeney’s while incarcerated.
But from the second Bambi returns to the world, Imperial Dreams sharply charts the litany of ways in which the bureaucratic snarl of daily life can make it nearly impossible for even the most well-intentioned among us to build a better life. Bambi goes to a job recruiter, and is turned away without a driver’s license. He heads to the DMV, and finds out that the state sued him for child support while he was incarcerated, to the tune of $15,000. Most of his family lives in the projects; his brother Wayne (Rotimi Akinosho) would run the risk of being evicted himself if he were to give shelter to unauthorized family members. Child services has an eye on Bambi, and on Day’s living conditions, which are scarcely acceptable; they live in a broken-down car, towels in the windows, the local police always somewhere nearby.
And all the while, the dangling carrot of easy (and illegal) income hovers just in front of Bambi. His uncle Shrimp (Glenn Plummer in a cruel, sinister turn) is a modest criminal, and offers Bambi an opportunity: $4,000, cash in hand, if Bambi agrees to run a shipment of prescription drugs across state lines. As Vitthal juxtaposes Bambi’s pavement-pounding efforts to improve with the increasingly aggressive temptations of his former life, Imperial Dreams makes a modest, sincere case for the seeming futility of a post-jail existence. There’s a bitter irony in how significantly easier it is for Bambi to get his hands on a gun than to earn enough money to safely house himself and his son, and Vitthal explores these questions throughout with a keen sense of pacing, treating Bambi’s first few days of freedom as a cyclical progression of humiliations.
Where Imperial Dreams occasionally wavers is in its unsubtle storytelling, which often feels at odds with Vitthal’s appealing and naturalistic direction. The script, co-written by Vitthal and Ismet Prcic, often takes its beats a step or two beyond the realistic. It’s clear within seconds that Bambi’s mother is a drug addict, and the film slams this impression home by having her foggily ask her son for rocks. Bambi’s conversation with a DMV employee ably ratchets up the physical aggravation of taking two steps back for each one ahead, only to be immediately followed by Boyega expressing this exact frustration aloud within seconds (“How am I gonna rehabilitate if they won’t rehabilitate me?”). At one point, Bambi explains his troubles to a desk receptionist, in a scene played less for discomfort than for exposition. Imperial Dreams is full of these leaden moments, familiar story beats clashing against a film with a frequently smart ear for the pragmatic struggles of poverty.
Vitthal’s film settles into a far more comfortable rhythm when it immerses itself in the details of Bambi’s world, from the saturated halogen lights of so many waiting rooms to the sudden menace of a car taking a little too long to pass by. It’s a visually and tonally confident film, particularly for a feature-length debut, and Vitthal’s distinct feel for the bleary sunlight and darker corners of Watts is striking throughout. The film’s procedural storytelling benefits from its tight 86-minute runtime, and if Imperial Dreams does tend to race from one Major Moment to the next, its real appeal is in the minute sequences in between, when Vitthal’s observant filmmaking has more of a chance to breathe.
The film is largely a showcase for Boyega as well, who only continues to impress as a performer. Imperial Dreams relies heavily on the actor’s ability to externalize Bambi’s mounting battle against the simplicity of crime, and Boyega capably delivers. Bambi is a complex man, still boyish despite the constant pressures of his environment, and Boyega teases out the internal conflict of somebody who hasn’t lived long enough to understand that there’s always another way out. For a man who has a son to protect, and his dignity to reclaim, there’s little time for waiting around. Boyega delivers a resolute performance, embodying a weary kind of hope even as the world conspires to trap him again. Imperial Dreams offers no easy resolutions to its sad labyrinth of disadvantages, but Boyega manages to capture something honest and memorable in his dogged pursuit of a vague future. For Bambi, there’s no choice but to believe that it’ll be worthwhile to do it the right way.