Made in the early days of the raunchy teen-sex-comedy genre, California Dreaming is a strange picture. It’s primarily the story of a nerd who travels from Chicago to L.A., gets caught up in surfer culture, and learns, among other things, how to score with chicks. Yet the narrative also has a number of downbeat elements, such as the lead character’s quest to honor the legacy of his dead brother, and a likeable supporting character’s struggles with mortality. Plus, the top-billed actor in the cast isn’t Dennis Christopher, who plays the nerd, but Glynis O’Connor, who plays the pretty surfer girl living in the house where the nerd crashes during an eventful summer. So, in some awkward way, California Dreaming is also the story of how O’Connor’s character matures beyond beach-girl superficiality in order to recognize the nerd’s appealing qualities. California Dreaming seems like a real movie during long sequences of sensitive-ish character dramedy, and yet it seems like a sleazy exploitation flick whenever it devolves into ogling shots of undulating female body parts. The sum effect is middling.
One big problem is the way Christopher is presented. Although the actor later demonstrated great oddball charm in Breaking Away (which was released a few months after California Dreaming), his characterization in California Dreaming is excessively awkward. With a faraway look in his eyes, a gangly build, and a weird habit of giggling at inappropriate moments, Christopher’s character comes across less like a geek who needs to get out of his shell and more like a budding serial killer. For instance, the scene during which a topless O’Connor enters a bathroom only to encounter an idiotically grinning Christopher seated on the toilet and staring at her while he’s in the middle of a bowel movement is particularly unpleasant to watch. As for O’Connor, the ’70s teen star who gave delicate performances in the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and the theatrical feature Ode to Billy Joe (both 1976), it’s depressing to see her transformed into yet another bleach-blonde starlet whose bikini body is given more prominence than her dramatic skills.
Still another peculiar aspect of California Dreaming is the pathos found in subplots. For instance, Seymour Cassel easily steals the movie playing Duke Slusarksi, an aging beach bum with a mysterious past; the interest of his performance stems from wondering how many of the character’s tall tales are actually true, and the surprise of his performance comes from a startling scene in which he pays an awful price for prolonged adolescence. Far less compelling is a silly running joke about a local dude who takes a bet that he can live in his car for a month. California Dreaming provides ample footage of cool surfing and hot babes, but it’s hard to figure out the intended audience—the story’s too grim for the picture to qualify as escapist fare, and the abundance of tacky elements makes it impossible to take California Dreaming seriously.
California Dreaming: FUNKY