For some reason, the 1980s had a rash of films in which the central theme was putting a teenager in an adult’s body, or an adult in a teenager’s body. 1989 had no less than five, from the obscure Vice Versa to the modern classic Big. Mike Rocco’s Dream a Little Dream tied the trend in with another 80s film trend, the two Coreys, Haim and Feldman. Having recently sat through 17 Again, I thought I would take a look at Dream a Little Dream and see if things were done better when this oddly-specific genre was in its heyday.
Corey Feldman plays the lead role, Bobby Keller. Corey Haim plays his best friend, “Dinger”; Haim broke his leg just shortly before shooting, and so Dinger had a few lines hastily added to incorporate the broken leg into the script. In the movie, Dinger’s leg was accidentally run over by his own mother and this pretty much sums up Dinger’s role in the film: he’s the unfortunate comic relief. Bobby has some more typical teen problems. He’s flunking all his classes (so is Dinger, but he doesn’t seem to mind), his parents (played by Alex Rocco and Victoria Jackson in fun small roles) don’t seem to understand him, and he has frequent run-ins with the school bully Dumas (Matt Adler). He’s also developing a serious crush on classmate Lainie (Meredith Salenger). That last is a problem because Lainie is the girlfriend of his other best friend, Joel (William McNamara).
It’s seldom a good idea to piss off the guy who bails you out of fights.
Of course, things quickly get more complicated for Bobby. The other main character of the film is Coleman Ettinger (Jason Robards), an elderly man (and implied to be a retired professor) who is interested in transcendental states and the nature of dreams and reality. One night when he has talked his wife Gena (Piper Laurie) into joining him in meditation, Bobby and Lainie collide with them while cutting through their lawn. Coleman wakes up to find himself in Bobby’s body, and soon learns that Gena is in Lainie’s — but is in her subconscious so that Lainie isn’t aware of her presence. Meanwhile, Bobby resides in Coleman’s subconscious, coming out only in dreams. The dream state is a good narrative trick here, as it not only allows for some exposition on just what’s going on, it also allows director Rocco to get the most out of his lead actors. Since Robards’s character is mostly inhabiting a 17-year-old for the length of the film, the dreams are the main place we get to see him act. Meanwhile, the dreams allow Corey Feldman to act as the genuine teenaged Bobby, while in the real world he gets to play the 70-year-old man’s personality, as well as playing the 70-year-old man trying to pretend to be a teenager. Feldman successfully shows off his acting ability here, with changes in delivery and tone depending on just which role he’s trying to be.
The other young actors fall into an interesting little paradox. Even in the 80s, these characters would have seemed just a little unreal; their fashions are all fairly extreme, and I’m not sure anybody has ever talked the way Dinger and Bobby do. But it all feels believable. They may not be a familiar group of teenagers, but they’re all credible teenagers, the more so with how they react to “Bobby’s” increasing strangeness. Coleman sucks at being a teenager, and Dinger, Lainie, and Joel all react naturally to how oddly he’s behaving. There are also some solid adult performances, with Harry Dean Stanton playing Coleman’s best friend and the only other person in on the switch, and Susan Blakely playing Lainie’s mother. Blakely’s character is, frankly, one seriously disturbed individual, and Blakely is very good at casually performing acts that have one yelling “what the hell?!” at the screen.
Had she been the focus of the film, this would be a much darker picture… and a spiritual successor to Mommie Dearest.
The story doesn’t really break any new ground, but it does manage to be entertaining throughout. It’s mostly the character interactions that are worth watching, though. And I have to say that the soundtrack to the film was a lot of fun to listen to; a lot of 80s hits, and the use of both Mel Torme’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and a rock version of the same by Mickey Thomas was handled very well, especially in the end credits where the versions are handled in a duet, with Feldman and Robards dancing.
Dream a Little Dream may be just a fun 80s film… but it is a fun 80s film. And that’s really all anybody can ask of it.