Because director Cristian Nemescu was killed when a speeding Porsche smashed into a taxi he and sound designer Andrei Toncu were riding in, California Dreamin' is not quite a finished film, but it is so rich with incident and detail that you would never know this were the case if credits at the beginning didn't state it. It's possible Nemescu would have shortened the film a bit, but who knows. As it stands, while there are occasional moments that feel like they could be more efficiently paced or connected more closely to the whole, none of these moments detract from the powerful experience of living in the world of these characters.
Some reviewers have referred to the film as a satire, and that may be true, but it didn't have the sizzle and bite of a satire to me. The characters are sometimes comic, but it's a lived-in comedy, complex rather than sharply focused, like the perpetually-rumpled mayor in the film, hapless with good intentions, unable to get his tie and shirt to agree on much of anything, never mind his town.
The closest thing to a caricature is Armand Assante's Captain Jones, one of those career military men whose entire body seems designed to support his crewcut. Assante knows how to use his eyes, though, to convey far more than words from his mouth ever do. Liviu Marghidan's camera catches extraordinary moments of Jones trying to adapt to the situation he's been forced into -- a simple transportation of radar equipment has been made impossible by a small-town railroad station manager named Doiaru (Razvan Vasilescu), who has enough frustrations and bitterness to last several lifetimes and enough influence in town to inflict all his resentments on the entire community. California Dreamin' is full of pairings, and Jones and Doiaru are one of the most compelling -- men who spend much energy each day consolidating and maintaining their authority, channeling the storms of their lives into barked orders and barely-restrained violence: men of sucked-in bluster, blind to the ways they weaken their own best efforts, a tin soldier and a thug. And yet they are more than that, too -- Nemescu had an uncanny eye for details of humanity, and so Jones and Doiaru have scenes of awkward communication together, moments that can not last but, in their awkwardness, are far more humane than any satire would allow. They are men who have shaped their lives, though not had a lot of freedom to determine that shape. They have made, and continue to make through the film, choices that ruin all their best chances, but it's a sign of Nemescu's extraordinary talent that we learn to sympathize, at least briefly, with those choices, even though we can see the ruin ahead.
California Dreamin' is more than just a story of cultural miscommunication, though it is certainly that, and its last half hour is one of the most complex and undidactic representations of such miscommunication that I've encountered in a film. Doiaru's daughter, Monica (Maria Dinulescu), is popular and a bit boy-crazy, but more than anything she is unsatisfied by life in a small town and dreams of being somewhere else, the daughter of someone else, free. She and Captain Jones's next in command, Sergeant McLaren (Jamie Elman) begin what both know will be a brief affair, and here, too, the complexity of the story is apparent -- at first, we are sure Sgt. McLaren is too smart, too disciplined to get involved with a 17-year-old girl who doesn't speak English in a town he will be leaving at any moment. We see the other soldiers hooking up with women from town, and it's a little sad, a little embarrassing, more than a little exploitative, and we can even understand that Monica might think there's nothing to be lost by entangling herself with an American soldier, but McLaren seems like the stereotypical military golden boy: well educated, a girlfriend back home who he talks to on the phone, sensible, concerned for diplomacy... We watch as Monica convinces him to dance at a party and we tell ourselves he's just being nice, flattering a young girl who's never gotten to hang out with Americans before. But then Monica enlists the help of the only person she knows who speaks English, a boy who is, in fact, hopelessly in love with her, but who, until she suddenly needs him, she hardly notices except to occasionally insult. And he doesn't translate Sgt. McLaren's words when the soldier tries to say to Monica, "I want to kiss you," but it doesn't matter -- what will be, will be.
There will come later moments of awkwardness, later moments when language fails, when electricity fails, when old bombs suddenly explode and water pipes burst through manhole covers with late-night orgasmic glee. Through it all, Nemescu's objective, though almost Romantic, approach pays off in more complex emotional force than would be possible were the story more schematic, the characters pushed closer to doom. The camera swishes and swoons, peers, glimpses, jerks -- like a home video or a low-budget documentary, offhand and patient, incapable of asserting Import or Meaning, just there, like the characters themselves.
There is doom, though, and clear blame for it. Jones and Doiaru are the men they are, demolition derby drivers destined to collide. Machismo wreaks havoc, whatever the address, whatever the language. The penultimate scene is a masterpiece, with the soldiers, ignorant and blissful, pulling away from a mess they cannot see, charmed by fireworks: the gorgeous, fleeting residue of violent explosions.
It's not the end, though, for again Nemescu (and his co-screenwriters -- Catherine Linstrum and Tudor Voican) knows that grace notes are the key to a certain power in music. The final scene is almost Pinteresque in the vivid implications hidden behind the banal non-conversation. What is true of the entire movie is doubly true of this scene: the writing is subtle, the acting rich, the filming restrained.
In 2006, a recklessly-driven Porsche robbed the world not only of two young men and a taxi driver, but of someone who probably could have had a distinguished, extraordinary career as a filmmaker. Nemescu did not die without making a mark on the world, though. California Dreamin' is a better film than many directors make over the course of entire careers, with much to show us about power and arrogance and communication, about human foibles and human desires. It's a movie to live in for a while, a movie that lets us feel our way back to our own lives, enriched.