Dora Peña’s “metaphysical thriller” Dream Healing is exactly the sort of film festivals are made for. As an introduction to an emerging local filmmaker and up and coming actors (not to mention a showcase for veterans like Borrego and Viviane Vives) it’s pretty first rate. Judging the film itself from a critical perspective, however, it’s kind of a mess.
Clara (Walker), an 11-year-old girl cursed with a strange clairvoyance, can temporarily relieve customers of the stressful, guilty thoughts they harbor by simply touching their hands, leaving them to take the best cat nap they’ve ever had while her preadolescent brain copes with their often disturbing adult memories. Walker, perfectly cast, plays Clara with the too-advanced maturity, emotional detachment, and creepy kid-glower the role requires. Her aunt Marta (Armstrong), who becomes Clara’s caregiver via an unnecessarily convoluted backstory, exploits the girl’s gift. Marta exchanges Clara’s services, which one character deems a “high like no other drug” for money and status — her clients include the sheriff, an IRS agent, and the mayor (Marc Daratt). Thinking the secret thoughts of the rich and powerful begins to screw with Clara’s tiny head ,of course, and her sort-of-uncomfortably ill-defined relationship with a new neighbor (Bleu Wenzel) threatens to ruin Marta’s dreams of building a child-exploiting empire.
That’s just one plotline of the many the film offers as it addresses adultery, alcoholism drug abuse, child molestation a fantasy-based Lynchian exploration of suburbia’s incredible seediness (though the depravity’s not so creative) with highly emotional family drama. The disparate tones frequently clash to the film’s detriment, and that combined with too many character uneven performances from some of the actors. Peña draws a pretty fearless performance , for example, from Gigi Isaac, who plays the mayor’s troubled daughter, but the scene in question loses its power through repeated flashbacking. The film similarly suffers from Peña’s insecurity in her ability to affect audience emotion, evidenced in the overbearing soundtrack swell during key scenes and too much on-the-nose exposition, rendering most of the dysfunctional family scenes soap operatic.
But this is auteur Peña’s first feature-length film (after short “Crazy Life”), though, and the discordant combining of fantastic, surreal, and dramatic elements suggests she’s still working to combine the elements of her personal style, and the overabundantcharacters and the tangle of storylines, some with loose ends, some too tightly knotted, seems more a sign of an outsized creative ambition she has quite gotten in her grasp. Peña’s a filmmaker to watch with anticipation in coming years, though, and Dream Healing is the kind of film that makes you glad you bought an all-day festival pass.