A few weeks ago, as The Sweet East started gracing theatres across the States, Reverse Shot ran a sprawling conversation between critic K. Austin Collins and critic-turned-screenwriter Nick Pinkerton. It’s a delightful exchange I can’t recommend enough, both for all it has to uncover about Sean Price Williams’ film––which Pinkerton wrote and which, in my book, was one of last year’s finest––but also for what it sponges of our depressingly shortsighted, quid-pro-quo relationship with the films we watch, what we expect to receive in return for the time we invest in them. “If I wanted to say something,” Pinkerton reflects on the okay-but-what’s-the-message response Sweet East routinely encountered in the months since its Cannes premiere, “I would open my mouth and the words would come out. That’s not what one makes a movie for. You make a movie to go beyond the expression of simple concepts.”
In an ideal world this is the kind of creative intransigence every film would abide by; in 2024, when an overarching majority of blockbusters produced in the States are chained to carefully guarded intellectual properties and much of the indie scene feels like an amalgam of risk-averse, perfectly homogenous Sundance-tailored projects, a film that truly and fully embraces that defiant spirit is an outlier. Shamelessly proud to be its own uncategorizable thing and brazenly committed to pushing the medium down very weird paths––while having a lot of fun in the process––Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s Dream Team is one such film.
Ever since their 2009 mid-feature Blondes in the Jungle, the first project they co-directed, conversations about Horn and Kalman’s cinema have often orbited around the same stultifying questions: what (if anything) their films are about and who (if anyone) they’re really for. You’d be forgiven for feeling lost as you venture into them; at their most inspired, these works wed the surreal with the sublime, dogging fabulously named eccentrics (Armani Rivette, Alta Mariah Sophronia) along absurdist journeys that defy narrative conventions and play their low-budget artifice for psychedelic comedies. Blondes in the Jungle followed three teenagers on a series of drug-fueled encounters across 1980s Honduras. Set just a few years later, L for Leisure (2014) tracked a handful of grad school students as they spend their vacations around the world pontificating on the End of History, napping, and partying. And their 2018 Two Plains & a Fancy felt like the punchline of a cross between Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist: a watercolorist, a geologist, and a reformed con artist search for the perfect hot spring in 1890s Oregon.
“One problem with this mode of filmmaking,” read the New York Times review of L for Leisure, “is that it is essentially unfalsifiable: No element, however random […], can be deemed out of place.” One problem with this line of argument, conversely, is that it already presupposes a whole set of assumptions around what a film should look like, how it should behave, and how it should be judged––the very preconceptions Horn and Kalman have been challenging since their first collaboration.
Like its predecessors, Dream Team hangs in a hazy, oneiric region; what the film is about is a lot easier to discuss than the entrancing feeling it evokes. As corals the world over start killing humans with poisonous neon-colored gases, INTERPOL agents No St. Aubergine (Esther Garrel) and Chase National (Alex Zhang Hungtai) are dispatched not to figure out so much as to “learn about” the mystery, per their own admission, in a journey that keeps shuttling us from Mexico to British Columbia. Split into seven episodes, each given a beautifully evocative title (e.g. “Asses to Ashes” or “Doppelgängbang”) and introduced by slightly different, growingly trippy renditions of the credit sequence, Dream Team apes a serialized TV structure only to frustrate the gratifications one would normally associate with the format. There’s no sense of closure here, much less clarity. As No and Chase travel south of the border, their quest gets more evanescent, and the plot––such as it is––more ethereal: storylines are dropped, new characters bob up everywhere, all while the mystery turns hopelessly intricate.
Yet to argue that there is no logic behind this shapeshifting concoction is to overlook the connections filmmakers draw within and between the film’s vignettes. Even the most random element in Dream Team still responds to or rhymes with another, whether that’s a sight gag or pun. Speaking with Film Comment, Kalman has cited the “aggressive absurdism” of the David Wain school of meta-comedy as a major influence behind his projects with Horn, but their endlessly inventive ethos also reminded me, of all things, of a 1960s French literary movement: the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), which explored the scope of writings produced within a playful formula. That’s basically what Horn and Kalman do in Dream Team. Working within the confines of a pseudo mini-series only to trespass them, their film opens itself up to all kinds of possibilities and twists, no matter how nonsensical or tangential. This is not “cliquish anti-comedy,” as the Times once complained––this time about Two Plains & a Fancy. Sure, your mileage may vary, and how much you’ll enjoy Dream Team will depend on your receptivity to its mix of highfalutin philosophizing, deliberately stilted deliveries, and horny banter. But there’s nothing insular about those jokes, or the strange universe No and Chase traverse.
“God, my sensory world was so rich!” the young man says while recounting a dream that saw him roam a beach in dog-form; it might as well be a précis of the whole film. Here, too, Horn and Kalman wear many hats. Aside from writing and directing, the duo also shares editing credits, and while Kalman worked on the sound design, Horn served as art director and cinematographer––shooting, as she has since Blondes in the Jungle, on a warm and grainy 16mm. There’s a tendency to view the filmmakers’ penchant for celluloid and a ’90s TV aesthetic as exercises in nostalgia; there is nothing farther from what they’re after. Dream Team is set in 1997, yet even as it revisits that bygone era it does so with not with melancholy but with a curious eye for all its odd and still-protean inventions. (The late-90s milieu means the directors can play with very primitive computer renderings of coral reefs and integrate those into Horn’s kaleidoscopic visuals.) The result is neither cliquish nor unfalsifiable; pegging it so doesn’t reveal much about the film as it does about the dispiritingly poor language that prevents genuinely original voices from reaching bigger audiences.
By the time Dream Team comes to its enigmatic ending, the journey has accrued a disorienting power––it’s the vertigo that comes from watching a film fearlessly pushing against the limits of what can be told, and how.
Dream Team premiered at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.