The modern filmmaking obsession with long-playing single takes, aka “oners”, likely started with the dazzling Copa sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. A couple of years later, Robert Altman opened his Hollywood satire The Player with an elegant oner that set the plot in motion while cheekily calling attention to itself by having characters discuss impressive oners from films past. Suddenly, film schools were full of brash young wannabes trying to emulate their heroes with overly complex single takes that called attention to themselves by being poorly executed (trust me, I was there). Then came the digital revolution, which provided directors the opportunity to shoot whole features in one take, which early digital adopter Mike Figgis first pulled off in 2000’s Timecode.
It’s a little surprising that more filmmakers haven’t taken a crack at the oner feature. Sure, it’s a tall order to come up with a story strong enough to mask the technique, but a lack of substance has never discouraged a cocky director from flaunting their formal chops. I was worried this might be the case with Qasim Basir’s A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. which boasted of its one-shot gambit in the Sundance Film Festival program; though I wasn’t familiar with Basir’s work, the plot summary – guy meets girl on the night of the 2016 election – just sounded gimmicky, like a real-time rendition of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo.
Those concerns vanished during the first encounter between Cass (Omari Hardwick) and Frida (Meagan Good), a sizzler that’s all eye contact and deft camera movement. Though the film occasionally struggles to fill its run time, Basir is never at a loss as to how to fill the frame; working smoothly in tandem with his cinematographer/camera operator Steven Halloran, Basir guides us through an anxious night of budding romance and, electorally, change we do not want to believe in. As one nightmare begins, Basir holds out hope that a long dormant dream might just get reawakened.
The dream of the title belongs in part to Cass, a USC film school phenom who’s lost his creative fire since graduating. We never catch a glimpse of the work that made Cass such a hot commodity, but we hear about it from friends and, in one scene, an enthusiastic aspiring filmmaker who’s rendered speechless when he runs across his filmmaking hero. Cass was going to be one of the galvanizing talents of his generation; now he’s an inveterate club hopper who seems lost and angry (less at the world than himself).
Cass is hanging with friends at a food truck parked outside L.A.’s Pacific Design Center, nervously checking election results (it’s already going south for Hillary), when he briefly locks eyes with Frida. The attraction is instantaneous and undeniable; Cass is going to talk to this girl, and salvage this night one way (get her digits) or the other (ahem). When it turns out that Frida is flying back home to the Midwest in the morning, Cass throws a little giddy-up in his game, and invites her to a hip club down the block. Once inside, he makes a move, believing she just gave him the green light. She did not, and the whole evening nearly implodes. But after brawling with some mouthy jerks who hurl vile insults at Frida, Cass manages to convince her that he’s a decent guy, and that she should hop in a Lyft with him and hit up an election night party in the hills.
The shindig is at a beautiful house with a deck overlooking the glowing nighttime sprawl of Los Angeles, and Basir makes gorgeous use of it. Alas, the mood inside is hardly celebratory. If you haven’t blocked out the memory of that night, you might recall there was needlessly drawn-out suspense over Pennsylvania; that drama is nearing its heartbreaking conclusion as Cass and Frida dazedly wander the living room to talk to his friends. Everyone in the film seems to be in an Ativan stupor even before Trump is declared the next President of the United States. They’re looking to be inspired, for a reason to fight, but one of the people who should be stirring them up, Cass, is just as phased as they are. Cass needs a spark. And as the film drifts towards its final scene (inside an eerily empty Mel’s Drive-In on the Sunset Strip), we begin to sense that Cass is just about to be reignited creatively and emotionally.
It’s not easy to stay in the moment as performers when you’ve got so many literally moving pieces around you (including Halloran’s not-exactly-compact camera rig), but Hardwick and Good are there for each other throughout. Hardwick’s Cass has a rugged charm lurking under that dour demeanor, while Good plays Frida as a no-bullshit professional who’s stowed away her feelings for fear of leaving herself exposed to yet another disappointment. They’re kindred battlers. As Basir and co-writer Samantha Tanner make abundantly clear in this very earnest, ferociously hopeful film, we’re not going to get through this mess if we’re not pushing one another to be at our very best. That’s the simple, but true message of A Boy. A Girl. A Dream. It’s all about support, love and action. This directness is essential during the emergency of our times.