This film has absolutely nothing to do with South American drug trafficking. Would Judge Dennis Prince lie to you?
The only thing harder than holding on is letting go.
You may have missed The Dust Factory when it quickly wafted through a one-week theatrical run in October 2004. Playing at just 22 theaters nationwide, most folks never heard of this one. Was it so bad or just misunderstood? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Thirteen-year-old Ryan Flynn (Ryan Kelley, Mean Creek) isn't talking to anyone—not to his mom (Kim Meyers, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge), not to his best friend, Rocky (Michael Angarano, Lords of Dogtown), and not to his beloved Grandpa Randolph (Armin Mueller-Stahl, Jesus), although he's not talking either due to severe Alzheimer's symptoms. Ryan isn't talking to anybody. There's nothing physically wrong with Ryan; in fact he's quite athletic, constantly racing on his rollerblades while pal Rocky tries desperately to out-maneuver on a bicycle. Ryan's problem isn't physical; it's emotional. Deeply traumatized after witnessing his father's death, Ryan has practically refused to expose his feelings to anyone at any time. But after an accidental fall from a bridge into the river far below, Ryan manages to swim ashore only to discover something has changed in his hometown. When he arrives home, he's greeted by Grandpa Randolph, as talkative and chipper as ever. Ryan, too, speaks up to inquire not only about his Grandpa and how it is that he can seemingly pass through the walls of the house but also about the vibrant and attractive teen girl dancing in the front yard. Melanie (Hayden Panettiere, Racing Stripes) is simply vivacious and is happy to befriend Ryan in this odd "other world." It's a turnabout on Purgatory, really, where she, Grandpa Randolph, and others are happily alive in a place in between life and death. But, at the Dust Factory, the strange circus big top tent in the middle of the field, residents can decide if they'll brave the high trapeze and a mid-air jump to determine if they go on into eternity or if they'll fall into the pile of dust below and go back to the real world of the living. As Ryan learns from Grandpa about the importance of living life, Melanie tugs at him not to leave this world of perpetual golden sunshine, hoping to convince him not to risk the trapeze.
No, this isn't your usual sort of family film. While it never succumbs to adult-themed innuendos or inappropriate language, the content matter—youngsters dealing with the realities of life and death—can be a bit challenging (even scary) to younger viewers. It's set in a dream-state, stylistically, and doesn't attempt to frighten with severely dark and disturbing imagery, yet it still manages to delve slightly into the spookiness of a surreal environment and, therefore, could be a bit troubling to sensitive youngsters. That said, the film is generally suitable for most age groups, yet the subject matter itself is, without a doubt, less than lighthearted. That's a testament, really, to the well-executed method of the picture, photographed in very lyrical yet appropriate off-kilter method. There is plenty of emotive lighting (most notable being the golden sunshine with long shadows of a never-ending late afternoon), and frequent evocative camera angles work to remind us this is not based in reality. That coupled with some interesting optical effects enabling the characters to perform impossible feats give the picture a very compelling feeling of an actual dream being captured on film.
The young actors, Kelley and Panettiere, are more than capable in their roles, refreshing in the fact that they're not propped up to the be same sort of snotty or promiscuous young teens we're usually confronted with in such films. Instead, both are very "normal," and Kelley as Ryan Flynn is downright "ordinary." They nail their roles quite capably, although they aren't pushed to extreme performances much throughout the proceedings. The real star of the show, however, is the impeccable Mueller-Stahl, who plays the role of Grandpa Randolph with perfect-pitch subtlety. While watching the picture, you gain an attachment to him and quickly learn to admire and even crave his warmth and wisdom. As an ensemble cast of three, then, the picture succeeds admirably in presenting well-developed characters who must coexist in a very odd temporal state of being.
For all intents and purposes, The Dust Factory might as well have been a direct-to-video release, as it only appeared theatrically for a week. Nonetheless, on this new DVD from MGM, the picture is given a pretty decent treatment, beginning with a rather energetic anamorphic transfer framed at 1.85:1. As much of the picture is shot in near-dusk settings, the long shadows are managed well, never appearing overly dark or murky but, rather, controlled well to achieve the semi-transparent quality that we would expect. There are a few instances of moiré effect, but nothing to be considered truly bothersome. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track provides a very clean and somewhat widened soundstage that helps extend the mood of the film. The rear channels and the low end don't get much to do, but that's really not much of an issue considering the slightly sedate setting.
As for extras, someone was asleep at the wheel on this disc. The groundwork was set for several interesting extras, including a featurette, "Making the Dust Factory," which, sadly, only runs a trim three-and-a-half minutes. Certainly more could have been shared (and I suspect more was actually captured) with regard to behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews. As it stands, the featurette is so frugal in its delivery that it seems hardly worth the bother. Then there are two deleted scenes, each of which runs a scant 30 seconds and, again, seems genuinely worthless to have been included; we're not given commentary to determine their context had they been inserted into the final cut. There's a music video for the title song, "Someone Like You," that's rather trite despite being performed by actress Panettiere. A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras. Unfortunately, an audio commentary is not present here, which, in my estimation, is a missed opportunity for writer/director Eric Small to provide useful and potentially interesting information regarding the preparation of the script, production design, and optical effects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Depending on your mood or perspective, The Dust Factory will come off either as charming fantasy or an almost dreary surreal escapade. In true fashion of Grimm's fairy tales, the story is fantastic yet a bit frightening, too. There's a moral at play here—a challenge, really—that charges if you're afraid to die you will also be afraid to live. Ryan's internal struggle is one that we all must confront at one time or another but, in this context, it can be a bit heavy to watch a young teenager grapple with it all. Again, it's a good story and one that's executed to film well, but it's not full of daisies and gumdrops.
The Dust Factory makes for good escapist entertainment and will leave you drumming your forehead with your fingertips over the eternal quagmire it poses. It's well acted, well photographed, and well told. Not bad for a picture that slipped in under most everyone's movie-going radar. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• "Making The Dust Factory" Featurette
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