Using a predominantly nonprofessional cast, this outstanding documentarylike Canadian feature pulls no punches in its poignant depiction of youth gone bad. St. Amour plays a 17-year-old unemployed dropout who drifts into crime. As the movie opens he and a group of his street-tough friends mug a man in an alley. From this point on the film cuts back and...read more
Using a predominantly nonprofessional cast, this outstanding documentarylike Canadian feature pulls no punches in its poignant depiction of youth gone bad. St. Amour plays a 17-year-old unemployed dropout who drifts into crime. As the movie opens he and a group of his street-tough
friends mug a man in an alley. From this point on the film cuts back and forth between St. Amour's two-year detention in a correctional institution for young offenders and the actions that brought him there. Deserted by his father at an early age, he constantly battles with his mother, Santa
Maria, who is incapable of handling him. She tries again and again to talk with him, but he is beyond reach. Finally, he explodes and bashes her. At her wits end, she calls the police, and he is institutionalized. At the correctional facility, St. Amour finds himself set upon not only by an
endless parade of psychologists, social workers, and administrators, but also by a group of tough punks who, without reason, make life difficult for him, beating the hell out of him on occasion. Yet throughout all of this, St. Amour retains his "attitude," his cynical disdain for those who try to
help. Ward, a teacher at the facility, tries to use poetry to bring hope into the lives of these young men who have forgotten how to dream or have never had that luxury. For a long time, St. Amour, like many of the others in Ward's class, refuses to take the teacher's attempts seriously. They
respond to his requests for poems with angry profanity-laden ditties. Gradually, Ward begins to connect with St. Amour. He is the first person to whom St. Amour is willing to tell his story; a bond begins to form between them. One day, Ward plays Billie Holliday's "Don't Worry about Me" to the
class, and St. Amour is the only one to recognize the pain in the song's denial of concern. With Ward's help, St. Amour comes to realize that he is his own worst enemy. Good behavior wins St. Amour a weekend at home, where he even tries to clean up the act of his 10-year-old brother, Neil, who
seems to be following in his footsteps. The film ends with St. Amour back in the common room at the correctional center, his face momentarily lost among all the other dead-end kids then suddenly coming into focus. On the soundtrack, the song by Three O'Clock Train that has been repeated throughout
the film is heard: "Train of pride/Train of heartache/Train of twisted self-esteem/ Careful train/Afraid of breaking/You're riding on the train of dreams." It may be that St. Amour has been given back his dreams.
This synopsis may well sound like a description of any number of sentimentalized, implausible, moralizing teen redemption films, but none of these adjectives applies to TRAIN OF DREAMS. It is far from certain that St. Amour has been permanently saved from the fate for which he seemed headed. The
sense of reality here is almost palpable. Director Smith, a veteran documentary maker, presents his story without passing judgment. Everyone--St. Amour, his mother, the courts, the correctional institute--is a part of the problem and a part of the solution. Cutting abruptly between St. Amour's
life at the institution and his life outside, Smith puts us both in the boy's shoes and inside his head. Given Smith's documentarylike approach, there is little fancy camerawork here. Occasionally some of the nonprofessional actors appear a bit self-conscious, but for the most part the
performances are extremely convincing. At the center of the picture is St. Amour's extraordinary performance. Stocky, pimply, and buzz-haired, he looks nothing like the actors usually cast in such parts. Although he, too, is a nonprofessional, St. Amour is there every moment he is on-screen. With
little gestures and smirks, the way he carries himself, and his distant intensity, he is every inch an unrepentant punk. Most often, he is sullen and laconic and just wants to be left alone. At other times, his pent-up energy and frustration explode. It is difficult to like him or even to feel
sorry for him at the start of the film, but gradually he reveals little pieces of the troubled, intelligent, sensitive person within himself. Because he does this so skillfully, we are surprised to find ourselves feeling so deeply for him. Even in his about-face (if we can call it that) he conveys
a realistic tentativeness, as if he knows how he shouldn't behave but is uncertain of how to act in its stead. However, the plausibility of St. Amour's transformation would be suspect if it were not for Ward's terrific portrayal of the man who finally reaches him. Ward is no miracle worker, but he
is a man with a faith in the transcendent power of art and imagination, and he invests his character with unquestionable reality. He asks his students to appreciate and write poetry, and they respond with hilarious profanities--certainly the poetry such angry kids would create. What makes Ward's
character so believable is the way that he goes with the flow, recognizing the humor in the situation and patiently persevering. But the really impressive thing about Ward's and St. Amour's performances is that, like the rest of the actors in the film, they improvised from a guideline script.
(Nudity, excessive profanity, substance abuse.)
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