The late Bill Paxton got his start in no-budget thrillers. He figured out, early on, how to give you fair value, even playing a heavy in a genre picture.
He managed that one last time with “Mean Dreams,” an abused teens-on-the-lam road picture that packages drug money, dirty cops, and an abused girl the smitten, overmatched and neglected boy on the run with her.
Paxton plays Deputy Carroway, who has taken a job in a corner of farm country just as fall hits Canada. And even his sympathetic promises to his pretty daughter (Sophie Nelisse of “The Book Thief”) have a flinty aftertaste.
“I’ll get us outta here as quick as I can.”
But maybe Casey isn’t keen on cutting out. She’s stumbled into the sensitive kid working the ranch next door. Jonas (Josh Wiggins of “Max”) works like a dog for his disapproving dad, endures his hostile, shut-in mother and has grown up too sweet to kill a snake. Casey meets him just as he’s let one loose in the woods, well away from the livestock.
“You know people can see three miles over flat land?” she offers, making small talk.
“That’s pretty far,” he says.
“Not far enough.”
Casey has a secret, and seeing the over-familiar way the new deputy Single Dad purrs, “Baby girl” at her, the latch lock she installs on her bedroom door, we wonder.
Not to worry. Jonas is so taken with this first-ever potential “girlfriend” that he gives her a walkie-talkie. You know, so they can stay in touch at all hours. Cell phones don’t exist in this world, so the most obvious piece of movie foreshadowing ever is necessary.
The deputy and his daughter’s suitor tangle, and instantly we see how over-matched Jonas is. He’s witnessed the abuse, but he can’t convince his father (Joe Cobden) or the sheriff (Colm Feore) that “he’s a bad guy.”
So he hides out in the covered back of a pickup, and finds out the hard way.
After some creaky and predictable touches in the opening act, the Kevin Coughlin/Ryan Grassby script finds better footing in the middle acts — with Jonas dragging Casey on the run with him on impulse.
Naive kids, under threat of deadly violence, trying to make their way to “the ocean” without a clue or a cell phone to guide them. Teenagers stumbling through a remote part of the world, with Casey’s dog in tow, unable to get far enough off the grid that law enforcement can’t find them in a heartbeat.
Director Nathan Morlando makes the most of Canadian autumn — lovely scenery, rural grit, just enough unscrupulous people to help or hinder the young couple.
There’s some chemistry between the leads, none of it sexual. They’re just embattled young people clinging to each other to get out of a jam, without a real sense of how to do it. You’d swear their moves were choreographed based on what they’ve seen on Canadian TV. They’re almost totally unprepared.
But Paxton makes a marvelous menace. The picture’s biggest failing is losing sight of him for the middle acts, and its second biggest failing is giving the equally valuable Colm Feore too little to do. We know, by his casting, that this sheriff is key to the plot.
Actually, Paxton and Feore suggest a more interesting tack for the picture to take. Their story has more tension and offers the promise of more down-and-dirty-and-violent rewards.
But both of them, no strangers to indie film, showed up. Their presence got “Mean Dreams” financed and made. And both of them, especially the gone-too-soon good ol’boy from Fort Worth, know how to deliver fair value and chills in even limp, under-developed thrillers like this. Give him one or two good lines, and Paxton was always golden.
“It’s a mean world, and the angels left us to fend for ourselves.”
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language
Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore
Running time: 1:48