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DREAMS AND SHADOWS is the feature-film debut from writer, director and producer Tamarat Makonnen. This is the story of a teenage outcast in search of life’s true meaning. Billy, played by Shawn-Caulin Young, is a loner who spends most of his time working at a greasy diner and taking care of John, played by James Russo, his paraplegic father.

Nothing seems to go well for Billy, between being bullied by a small clutch of insensitive teenagers and struggling at home with his father’s alcoholism; Billy escapes the pain of real life in his dreams, where he sees himself as a mighty samurai in feudal Japan.

Billy is driven by two things; one of them being his desire for a “normal” life, the other being his desire to know his mother, whom died before Billy could remember her. This sets up the basis of Billy’s relationship with his father, but also serves as the building blocks to a multi-layered climactic ending to this dramatic story.

The essence of DREAMS AND SHADOWS is strong. With the details removed, the core of the story is a powerful odyssey of a young man with little understanding of whom he is or where he came from. Billy seeks out to solve his own mystery in life, in turn discovering what he is truly capable of when push comes to shove.

There are elements of classic storytelling that linger just beneath the surface of DREAMS AND SHADOWS, from OEDIPUS THE KING to MACBETH. However, the film gets lost in the labyrinth of tangled, overly-complex plot details. The film begins slowly, intimately developing a bond between Billy and his father, whom at first introduction appears to be a disabled war veteran. By the end of the film, DREAMS AND SHADOWS has become more of an enigmatic, twist-laden suspense flick with less substance and more interest in shock-and-awe.

I particularly enjoyed the dream sequences of Billy as a samurai and how these dreams begin to bleed and blur into his real life. The origin of Billy’s samurai sword and his fascination with the culture offers a promising back-story, but is never fully developed enough to fully take root in the viewers’ mind.

Shawn-Caulin Young’s (THE WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE) performance is a roller coaster ride, whereas the ups are his subdued portrayal of an angst-filled teenager coping with the daily pitfalls of life. On the contrary, the downs of this roller coaster occur when the melodrama takes over and he overplays some difficult and emotional scenes.

James Russo (PUBLIC ENEMIES) has a tendency to shine in his performance as the paraplegic, alcoholic single father with a dirty secret, but this gold occurs primarily in the first half of the film, before slowly tarnishing in the second half, due greatly to the script, which often falls victim to using clichés as crutches for dialogue.

DREAMS AND SHADOWS fits somewhere within the range of a dramatic soap opera and a pulp novel-era film noir, making it difficult for the viewer to get a firm grasp on how they feel about Billy and his father. These characters are made increasingly difficult to empathize with by their frequently shifting motivations. On more than one occasion, both Billy’s and John’s stance on significant aspects of their lives turn upside-down, requiring the audience to fundamentally question everything they’ve learned about the characters up to that point.

Curiously, none of the complicated storytelling is inherently bad, but it’s far more an issue of execution. DREAMS AND SHADOWS has what I would call an incredibly intense story, rich with depth and meaning, but falls short of its potential in the script.

Natalie Garcia Fryman delivers a pleasant supporting performance as Sarah, Billy’s friend and love interest, raised in foster care her entire life. The original music for DREAMS AND SHADOWS comes from Jeffrey Michael, containing a diverse array of moody accompaniments from slow, subdued orchestral pieces in the beginning and samurai-themes Asian influences to edgier, suspenseful pieces reminiscent of Clint Mansell and Carter Burwell.

As a first-time indie filmmaker, Makonnen may not have made the next CITIZEN KANE, but what he’s done is taken a bounty of risks, a massive leap of faith, and followed what is clearly a potent artistic vision. For this reason, I have a massive amount of respect and appreciation for his accomplishment. I am eager to see his next film, given what I’m positive is a plethora of learning experience derived from making DREAMS AND SHADOWS.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

DREAMS AND SHADOWS premiered in Los Angeles on October 2nd, 2009, followed by the DVD release on October 12, 2010.

Hopeless film enthusiast; reborn comic book geek; artist; collector; cookie connoisseur; curious to no end

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