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(The 2017 SXSW Film Festival opened on March 10 and ran all week until March 18. HtN has you covered and GUARANTEE more coverage than any other site! Check out this review of Mike Ott’s latest, California Dreams, a doc-hybrid about wannabe actors trying to live the dream.)

Director Mike Ott (Actor Martinez) defies easy categorization with this compellingly odd – or is that oddly compelling? – little movie that combines documentary and fiction-filmmaking techniques in a story about the search for meaning among life’s mundanities. As the movie begins, we encounter a series of characters – actors auditioning for a part, perhaps, though we’re not sure – who sit in front of the camera and perform monologues, usually badly. One cries, one reads from The Outsiders, another from Forrest Gump. Out of these stilted opening snippets Ott weaves a tapestry of engaging eccentricity that propels the film forward into the minimalist narrative that follows.

One man emerges from the initial interviews as the movie’s de facto main character: Cory Zacharia, a twenty-something unemployed high-school graduate who lives with his mother while entertaining seemingly unattainable dreams of becoming an actor. He has a friend in Germany – whom we hear in phone conversations, but never see – who offers him a part in a movie, urging him to buy a plane ticket and fly to Europe as soon as he can. But with what money? Meanwhile, Cory joins other individuals from the auditions in awkward conversations, sometimes in cars, sometimes not, usually about dating and sex, shot in strikingly beautiful locations around Southern California. As we attempt to piece together the puzzle of this fractured collection of anecdotes, whatever we think of it, we can’t turn away from its sheer peculiarity. What is it about?

On one level, that is irrelevant, since analyzing the intersection of dream and reality is Ott’s ultimate focus, and the various story bits merely background. On the other hand, Cory’s trajectory from loser to potential star, mirrored by his own status as the leading man of this movie, recalls a similar examination of delusional behavior in Chris Smith’s seminal 1999 documentary American Movie, where the fantasy seemed just as impossible, yet somehow also within reach. Call this by whatever name you choose –hybrid documentary, scripted reality, narrative nonfiction, etc. – it’s endlessly fascinating, regardless.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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