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Listening to David Crabtree after the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of his film Broken Dreams, you can sense the passion and work ethic that consumes him. Enlisting in an acting class at the Beverly Hills Playhouse to learn how to be an actor’s director, after the television show he is managing editor on, “Psych”, passed him over to helm an episode, Crabtree not only honed his skills, but also made the connections to go for broke on his first self-financed feature. Right from the start you notice a sort of TV quality to the imagery, I’m sure due to his experience in that industry—I don’t mean it in a bad way, though, the composition of shots and technique just lend itself to that comparison. However, the film is not a made-for-TV-type story. Following a troubled young man named Johnny, we discover the meaning of a statement spoken by co-writer Jeff Wallace, that addicts don’t hurt themselves, it’s the people they love and whom love them that get burned. By seeing the amount of people in Johnny’s life that truly care for him, the final act of tragedy really hits home.

It isn’t always the screw-ups that decide to throw their lives away; oftentimes it’s the seemingly normal ones that get in way over their head. What makes Broken Dreams so relevant and easy to enter is that each character is relatable. Crabtree admits each role was written for the actor portraying it. Having worked with all in class, he was able to catalog their strengths and weaknesses in order to get the performances he needed in the finished film. As a result, the acting is generally believable across the board—I do think Johnny, played by Eddie Navarro, comes across a bit stiff at the start, but once we watch his decent into addiction, the introverted and detached character hits its stride. You look at the central trio of Johnny, Kelsey Ford’s Elisabeth, and Jake Olson’s Ryan, and see an authenticity in the fact they are best friends. The crush Johnny has on Elisabeth is obvious, only making the dynamic between he and Ryan that much more intriguing since he is her finance. They are the ‘Three Musketeers’ and have been together from a very young age, ever since casting her as the lead in Johnny’s first film.

The question of Ryan asking for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage is what spirals everything out of control. Whether Johnny’s deep-seeded feelings would ever come out, we will never know, but those words flip a switch in his mind that the door would be shut forever. His friends’ PDA now starts to become awkward while his inclusion in their lives more strained and pandering. In order to combat these changes, Johnny buries his head into a documentary project he has been working on for years, a film about a wheelchair bound little person named Julie and her inability to go out into the world since her mother’s death. Not only is Nicole Gerth’s portrayal of this woman the highlight of the film, but her character is also the driving juxtaposition at its core. In a powerful scene, we hear her monologue of feeling like an outsider when around strangers, always pitied and coddled, never able to be treated like a real person. It’s a moving moment that effectively plays again later, without words, as Elisabeth watches a rough cut of the documentary, finally seeing the kind of genius at work with Johnny and his keen sense of being able to build trust with people, allowing them to take down barriers and reveal their souls, something he himself can’t do.

Johnny is also trapped into his existence, never being able to tell Elisabeth how he feels and end that chapter of longing, never able to stand up to his angry, unloving brother at home, and constantly being the guy everyone can count on, walked over at every turn. The only solace he finds is in the taking of drugs, allowing all that pain to be pushed back in order for him to become numb to his feelings and work longer hours unencumbered. Never thinking he is good enough for any of the love being poured out towards him, the lack of sleep means he is free from the dreams he aspires towards, dreams he no longer has to watch become shattered through his actions. A prisoner to his own psyche, he can’t see that everything Julie says is what he too feels—desperately needing approval and to finish the documentary in order to get it. So the drug use increases and the distance to those he loves expands. Even his dealer can see the abyss opening up beneath him, refusing to take all his money and only giving as much product as he thinks Johnny can handle. John Nicholas’s performance is a memorable one, so Zen-like in his demeanor and realistic in his actions. What dealer wants his clientele to OD? It’s about repeat business, not a quick influx of cash.

The third act showing Johnny hit rock bottom for the low sum of $500 definitely makes everything that came before it more important. Until the stakes get high with a sense of danger rearing its head, I’ll admit to feeling the pace drag, wondering where it all was going to lead. We see what the prospect of marriage is doing to the trio’s friendship, so the anticipation to find out the result soon becomes too much to overlook. In that regard, you do get a sense that Broken Dreams was a short later expanded to its current length. This fact leaves me with mixed feelings, though. While I believe it could be more effective with a tighter first two-thirds, matching the intensity of the conclusion, knowing that a main source of expansion was the Julie storyline gives me pause. Her relationship to Johnny is crucial to what’s going on, a mirrored character to break free of her restraints just as Johnny is dragged down by his. Knowing she is still there in the background as a simple cash drop goes tragically south keeps a sense of hope at the back of your mind, a hope that perhaps there is some good to come out of all this—one friend’s sacrifice another’s awakening. And the simple fact she’s around for a perfectly realized mini-epilogue concluding it all says Crabtree’s decision to go big was well worth the risk.

Broken Dreams 7/10

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photography:
courtesy of www.brokendreamsthemovie.com

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