Dream A Little Dream (1989) review

“They gave each other a smile with a future in it.” 
There are good films, bad films, strange films and challenging films.  Dream A Little Dream manages to be all of these. Released in 1989 it is a mixture of comedy, musical and fantasy it is almost impossible to bracket into a genre. It is a fascinating example of a late Eighties movie aimed at younger viewers yet unlikely to engage them due to narrative ambitions above its station. The film was essentially built for teen stars Corey Feldman and Corey Haim who’d already starred together in the actually rather good Licence to Drive and had also appeared in cult classic The Lost Boys. Their images were plastered across teen magazines in the US though in the UK they were virtually unknown. The film also tried to tap into the then weirdly prevalent trend for movies in which young and old swap bodies by way of some fantasy mumbo jumbo though even then it is an atypical example of this sub- genre.

They say you should be able to summarise a good film plot in a sentence so here goes. Teenager Bobby Keller pines for seemingly unattainable Laine Diamond yet an unlikely accident causes the two of them to collide in the vicinity of a dream experiment being carried out by academic Cameron Ettinger and his wife resulting in Cameron’s mind occupying Bobby’s body. There you go. While Corey Haim had been the main character in the more conventional comedy Licence to Drive, this time it is Corey Feldman’s turn to take the lead which he does with gusto. Channelling his appreciation of Michael Jackson Feldman dresses similarly and even gets the opportunity to strut his stuff  a la Jacko in a dance routine. Not that this is a musical as such. In fact with a script that often takes a more philosophical approach and co -starring illustrious actors like Jason Robards and Piper Laurie the movie has aspirations well beyond its likely demographic reach.  

Body swap movies were very much in vogue in the late Eighties following the success of Big in which Tom Hanks becomes a kid except he still looks like Tom Hanks. Others followed such as 18 Again, Like Father, Like Son and Vice Versa. All were variations on the theme and generally fun depending on your willingness to go with the premise. This film though is different - the tone is more whimsical with initial standard teen scenarios set against a more romantic backdrop. Early sequences constantly repeat dialogue between older and younger characters yet placing their meaning in different contexts. There is less slapstick and more thoughtful interludes. Other films of this type employed some mystical element- an ancient spell or artefact- to enable the change but here if you’re not paying attention it just looks like the results of a bicycle accident. It is not even a full swap like those other films as Cameron and Gina are trapped in a dream dimension so we’re denied the potentially interesting prospect of Jason Robards and Piper Laurie as adults teenagers trying to be teenagers.

Also while the swap is total for Bobby whose life becomes lived by Cameron, with Gina it is vaguer with gradual suggestion that Lainie is in her head denoted by gestures and a growing attraction to Bobby against her better instincts. Actually this part of the movie is rather sweet as Bobby tries to convince Lainie that she is really Gina and the realisation dawns slowly. In addition the film sets up a false jeopardy based solely on Bobby’s selfish wish to remain in a dream state, a potentially interesting idea that is not properly explored. He tells Colemen that once Gina has packed up and left the dream house he will lose her forever. This sets up a final section that races against a time frame but it turns out that Bobby was making this up. I found this a bit disappointing really and I don’t think it comes over too well adding to the confusion. Into the mix as well comes Lainie’s boyfriend Joel who proves to be a useful antagonist plus Cameron’s old friend Ike.  

The film opens with an extended verbal riffing scene between the two Coreys which could easily have come from improvisation. They work so well together and we’re immediately in territory less clean cut than your average John Hughes movie.  This opening part establishes Bobby’s desire for Lainie and why it’s a bad idea (“I’m in love.” “That could be a problem.”) Director Mark Rocco then cuts from the duo’s teenage banter to Jason Robards’ character Cameron Ettinger miming to the original version of the title song, sung by Mel Torme, in a theatre. Shot in what looks like one impressive take with the camera slowly circling the venue before dipping to the stage it is an ample demonstration of the style of this film which, whatever your views on the plot, is never less than strong. The story works better than it might because the film takes a little time early on to establish the witty, beautiful relationship between Cameron and Gina. Jason Robards playing against his more familiar tough guy type sparkles cheekily while Piper Laurie glows as the couple celebrate a night on the town, events that will later be repeated with their younger versions. It soon become clear that this film is edited with speed, scenes cutting back and forth to establish a rhythm matched by sharp dialogue yet this does mean some of the finer points get lost unless you pay attention.

It transpires that Cameron is one of those movie academics with seemingly endless time on his hands and he's been experimenting with trying to reach the place where `dreams and reality intersect`. After their day out he persuades a sceptical Gina to join him on the front lawn and engage in a little meditation. "Be like the roots of a tree," he tells her to whIch she responds; "You be like the root. I feel like the sap!" This central premise may appear somewhat woolly to the uncommitted viewer and be simply too unbelievable for people to accept and it is definitely the case that the narrative never properly explains why Coleman and Gina vanish into the dreamworld with no counterparts in reality.
Oddly despite some excellent directing work throughout the movie it is in the crucial accident scene that Mark Rocco does not provide enough clarity as to what has occurred. The build up- with Van Morrison’s `Into The Mystic` playing- is a series of cuts from the Ettingers meditating on their front lawn, Bobby running and Lainie cycling until the latter two collide. We then see them all lying unconscious. The dream place itself is disappointingly basic with a few toilet rolls scattered across the same set and filmed with a paler palette. Considering the style he employs elsewhere its a shame Rocco didn’t come up with something more surreal than this.

Later sequences in the dream show Coleman outside the house and it is clear he is living Bobby’s life. Bobby seems to be in control of the dream yet it is Coleman who is controlling his body in reality. It can be a bit confusing! Meanwhile Gina is in the house packing and Lainie is only partly her in reality. Despite watching carefully I still don’t quite get the logic of all this and why the transfers are not equal. I can see why from a narrative point of view this is the case as it gives the dramatic arc of Bobby trying to persuade Lainie who she is but this isn’t explained well enough.

I remember seeing this film when it came out on video probably about 1990 (things took a while to come out on video in those days) and immediately warming to the characters in it. It is wonderfully cast with each actor bringing something worthwhile to the table. Both Jason Robards (a two times Oscar winner no less) and Piper Laurie commit to thier liekable roles though goodness knows what they thought of the script. I can’t find any quotes from Robards about this film which realistically may well have been one he did quickly and forgot about but in 1993 he said in an interview when asked about roles he’d played; "All I know is, I don't do a lot of analysis. I know those words have to move me. I rely on the author. I don't want actors reasoning with me about 'motivation' and all that bull.” So he must have seen enough in this script to commit to it.  Its particularly rewarding to see a portrayal of older people achieved with wit and curiosity. It is a shame that we see a lot less of them as matters progress though. Likewise Coleman’s best friend Ike played by Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t get a lot to do but his presence elevates matters when he’s on screen.
Corey Feldman works hard to go beyond expectations and largely succeeds in conveying Coleman’s personality without doing an impression. He’s particularly effective as the character struggles with teen life and later when the situation becomes more desperate. Corey Haim adds much to the `best friend` character Dinger whose monologues and observations are amusingly put over. A real life accident in which the actor brke his leg four days before filming seems to enhance the character when written into the script and Haim uses the stick as a prop.  While these characters are US teens (and there's tons of hair mousse to prove it!) they are delightfully off kilter . The two Coreys spark off each other well though and you can see the appeal of the duo all these years later. If only they’d had more quality control over subsequent projects their future might have been as bright as this film suggests it could be.  

Meredith Salinger makes Lainie a believable magnet for Bobby’s attention and the script works harder than some to give her light and shade. Her chemistry with Corey Feldman comes across well on screen and their scenes together often push matters towards more serious drama. The dance sequence is also perfectly staged with more emphasis on facial expressions than big moves in a call and response sequence. William McNamara undercuts his catalogue model looks emphasising Joel’s self centred edge; when Bobby suggests Lainie may not be his type his response is ;”I’m every girl’s type.” Not for nothing does Dinger call him “psycho Joel.” The director’s father Alex Rocco plays Bobby’s Dad who spends the whole film in his dressing gown eating breakfast and speaking to his son via his mother! He and Victoria Jackson who plays Mrs Keller are a fine example of the eccentric parents present in many an Eighties teen film as if to emphasise the generation gap. Even the more serious mother of Lainie- played with subtle conviction by Susan Blakely- is more than the harridan her daughter thinks she is.

Many teen films of this period were heavily influenced by music promo videos and that style is definitely embedded in this one. There are plenty of video moments, notably when Coleman as Bobby does his best Michael Jackson routine in front of Lainie and the use of montages to show several events. Rocco even frames the confrontation with the bullies in a scenic steam filled alley. He catches the randomness of school and teen life so well yet there are more contemplative sequences too while the dialogue is lively and interesting. And he had the resources to set up a large prom night sequence for a two minute sequence that concludes with a camera crane shot exit from the main characters.

Tied with this is a lively soundtrack which includes three versions of the theme song in 80s rock style by Starship singer Mickey Thomas (who also has a cameo as a teacher), in its original style by Mel Torme and also a duet between the two. The latter plays over the end credits which also feature the delightful sight of old stager Robards and teen Feldman cutting a stylish rug to the tune. Also included are a cover version of David Essex’s echoey 70s hit `Rock On` , Frank Sinatra’s `Young at Heart` plus classic tracks form Otis Redding, REM and Van Morrison plus several contemporary songs from the late 80s.

It is fair to say that the film was not very well received beyond the Corey’s teen following and even some of them may have been puzzled by the relatively unusual format. Renowned US film critic Roger Ebert’s review of the time is typical of the critical reaction. “The movie itself, to put it tactfully, is incomprehensible,” he wrote, “The plot is a disorganized mess, and the director seems unable to tell even this simpleminded story with any degree of clarity".  He concludes that “Dream A Little Dream is an “aggressively unwatchable movie.” On the other hand the film has its fans, online you can also find nostalgic fan reviews saying it’s one of their favourite films. 
Part of the issue may have been the marketing which billed it as a teen comedy which it is not really. The film aspires to more than the comedic beats of the likes of Big and others went for. Whereas they all ended up with both characters scrambling to get things back to normal `Dream…reaches for the more interesting notion that Bobby seems to prefer the dreamworld which he can control unlike his chaotic real life. With there being no Coleman in the real life it leaves the older man desperately trying to sort out Bobby’s woes in order for the latter to want to go back. “You messed up my life worse than I did!” Bobby tells Cameron. While sometimes the dialogue betrays the values of over thirty years ago (where for example “fag” is used by all the teens as an acceptable insult) there are also some great character moments and zippy dialogue. There was a sequel of sorts, a direct to video film whose plot is a more straight forward affair involving magic sunglasses that can be manipulated by mind control!

Dream A Little Dream was only director Marc Rocco’s second film and his career later included Murder in the First and Where the Day Takes You before he died suddenly in 2009.This isn't a film for everyone but 31 years later stands up as an atypical curio from a different age and if you want to try something different then give it a watch and you might just be pleasantly surprised.



  1. I don't know this one. But do like Corey Feldman. Him and Haim were great in The Lost Boys for sure!

    No one ever remembers this one..Feldman was in a comedy show called The Dweebs. I remember it being shown on C4 in the early 90s - was hysterical!