"The Dust Factory" is like a cross between Cirque du Soleil and "The X-Files." Or maybe it's a cross between "Holes" and "What Dreams May Come." Or maybe it's between "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz." And all of that with a slight David Lynch flair.
Ryan Kelley (left) and Hayden Panettiere in "The Dust Factory," which opens today. (MGM)
But the above is really a convoluted way of saying "The Dust Factory" is a unique vision belonging to its writer and director, Eric Small. There can be no doubt that this film, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Denver, Houston and Dallas, belongs to Small's searching mind—even though the filmmaker is quick to share credit with his collaborators.
"The Dust Factory" is a coming-of-age story, albeit one told with surrealistic strokes. A young boy (Ryan Kelley) already struggling with the death of his father and grandmother—not to mention his grandfather's Alzheimer's—grapples with his own mortality after a fall from a bridge.
But his fall from the bridge into the river below is singular: Once submerged, Ryan crosses into another realm—a liminal place between this life and the next. The only person he knows there is his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who suffers no effects from Alzheimer's and mentors Ryan as the boy has always wished.
Ryan also encounters a free-spirited friend, Melany (Hayden Panettiere), who takes him to a circus big-top, which she refers to as the dust factory. There he sees people attempt to make a successful trapeze jump, and Melany informs him that the act is more than a stunt: It's actually how people exit the current realm, or "home away from home."
For most of the movie, Ryan, Melany and Grandpa wander through this liminal land, talking about their uneasiness, dreams, doubts, hopes, faith. Many of life's most meaningful themes surface at some point in the movie.
"The Dust Factory" doesn't offend (through language or otherwise), but most mainstream audiences will find the picture an odd piece of work. That's not to say bad, but certainly different.
The picture sometimes feels a bit slow, and at 1 hour 39 minutes, it could have trimmed about 20 minutes.
Small embraces life's significant themes head-on, and he doesn't shy away from issues of death and dying. Ten minutes into the film, Ryan and his best friend are discussing God and death. And this is after we've just seen Ryan bury his grandmother (with a shot of her corpse in the casket).
One of the most enduring themes of the film, however, is the notion that one must believe in something before he or she can see it. For example, Ryan remembers his father telling him about the man in the moon, but he just can't see it. He must believe first.
Small assembled a veteran crew to shoot this movie in Oregon, and it shows. The scenery is beautiful, and the music and sound design are also apt and impressive.
At first thought, it seems that kids might not care for "The Dust Factory" because it's such an unusual movie. However, children are oftentimes better at appreciating life's oddities and challenges than many adults are, and we should perhaps be careful about projecting our rigid definitions onto the younger set.
"The Dust Factory" bends time and space, and for this reason it lands itself in a betwixt and between place of moviemaking.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some scary images. Reviewer's Note: There's nothing offensive in the film, but it will strike most adults as very, very odd.
Director: Eric Small
Writer: Eric Small
Cast: Ryan: Ryan Kelley; Melany: Hayden Panettiere; Grandpa: Armin Mueller-Stahl.
The movie's official Web site is here.