If Kafka had been born in the projects, he might have written something like Netflix’s new parolee drama, Imperial Dreams. A squadron of bureaucracies crowd John Boyega’s recently released Bambi, ordering him to go through them while blocking his way at every turn. The reformed L.A. gangster needs a driver’s license to get a job, but the DMV won’t grant him one if he doesn’t pay the pileup of child-support payments that accrued during his incarceration. His locked-up ex-girlfriend (Keke Palmer) never asked for those payments, but the government demands his money while obstructing every path toward a legal livelihood. “The hood is the cruelest of prisons,” muses the young father and fledgling writer in voice-over. "They don't even have to build walls to keep people in." Bambi can see beyond his horizons. But he’s rightly unsure if there’s a road to get there.
Timely, searching, and involving, writer-director Malik Vitthal’s feature debut (available now) won an Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. There’s plenty to admire in Imperial’s nuanced dramatization of the institutional walls that face ex-convicts — a labyrinth of well-intentioned policies that add up to frustrating nonsense when pieced together in this particular way. The gray, impersonal suffocation that closes in on Bambi as the film progresses feels all the more stifling because there isn’t a single villain that all of his problems can be traced back to. His mom’s (Kellita Smith) addiction only inspires pity, while his opportunistic, drug-dealing uncle (Glenn Plummer) can convincingly explain his lifelong roughness toward his book-smart nephew. Still, the older man won’t house Bambi and little Day (twins Ethan and Justin Coach) if he doesn’t get something in return. And since the parolee doesn’t want to risk being sent back to prison by transporting Oxy across state lines, father and son make their home in a car that Bambi isn’t allowed to drive, risking street violence, police harassment, and possible attention from Child Services.
Like the similarly quiet and thrumming Moonlight, Imperial is most affecting as an internal portrait of a young black man’s struggle to embrace softness when the world tells him he has to be hard to survive. The film makes a case for the self-saving necessity of art and reflection even in the direst of circumstances, when the frustrations of poverty, homelessness, and caring for an energetic boy visibly frays Bambi’s last nerve. But it’s also blunt about the parolee’s limitations, both as a human being and a felon, whose kindness and imagination can’t will into existence what he needs most: stability and security in the form of a steady income. And while Bambi and his college-bound half-brother (Rotimi) try to keep their heads up, it’s heartbreaking to see that tiny Day never seems surprised by any of the ways life keeps knocking him down. No more than 6 years old, he’s already resigned to every cruel shove that life has in store for him.
And yet Imperial doesn’t feel so much like tragedy porn as it does the slow triumph of warmth and decency, even when a final calamity will leave you drained of all of the moisture in your eyes. The looming threats that hover over Bambi finally start crashing down when he decides to fight to protect his younger family members’ innocence. Impressively naturalistic for most of the film, Boyega’s best scene comes late, when he turns into an angry lion forced to tame himself. He’s as burdened as his son’s equine fantasies are light. The chestnut steed that Day gets to ride for a few moments in an abandoned lot are a rapturous escape. It’s possible Bambi only saw the fence the animal was locked in.