starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Kelley, Michael Angarano
written and directed by Eric Small
by Walter Chaw Stunning in its incompetence, Eric Small's The Dust Factory highlights by its existence the unpopular truisms that there are as many awesomely bad independent films as there are mainstream ones; that the terms non-genre and non-traditional usually indicate a directionless mess; and that working with kid actors is not now, nor has it ever been, anything other than a plugger's bet. It raises the question of why there aren't more mimes acting as Greek Choruses in movies before it answers it, and most damnably, it seems to ascribe some sort of moral failing to seniors afflicted with Alzheimer's. See, in Small's fantasy world of The Dust Factory, souls in limbo can choose to "take the leap" off a trapeze tower into the arms of some faceless metaphor: miss and they're returned to the "dust" of their lives; catch and they're thrown to "the next level," which is Heaven or a video game, though stupid either way. The sticky part about it (aside from the stupid part, which is all of it, really) is that it requires courage to take that leap. The suggestion then becomes that if you have Alzheimer's disease, in some part of your brain you're a coward for not dying or "returning"--that you have in fact chosen to remain in a state of declining capacity. It's one thing to pose an Afterschool Special about how kids in comas need a will to power, another thing altogether to suggest that grandpa's a coward for contracting a degenerative brain condition.
Evoking that 1964 episode of "The Twilight Zone" called "The Bewitchin' Pool" but looking more like an episode of "The Twilight Zone's" gauche cousin "Night Gallery", Ryan wakes up in The Dust Factory, a mirror place just like home but populated by people in debilitated mental states (one casts a furtive glance around for Hilary Duff), including a now-lucid Grandpa and insipid Melanie (Hayden Panettiere, an extraordinarily limited and irritating actress). For Melanie, the Dust Factory is always winter (the rules of the place are never established, however, so this bit of business is irritating at best), allowing her to ice skate on an unfrozen lake in a terrible special effect whilst running around in a winter coat and snow boots for the duration. The tinkling sound of Panettiere's forced, fake laughter is like a wind chime getting pulled through a cat, and the full impact of her adenoidal speaking voice, all tramped up in little girl spunk (last popularized by the wisecracking little sister from "What's Happening!!"), is the sort of thing you might be curious to experience for yourself because you think it's going to be so bad it's funny.
Indeed it might, were it not for Small's script: overwritten, disturbingly sexualized, and ripped from the pages of a suicidal fifteen-year-old's theme book. The look of the picture falls somewhere between "Dr. Who" on an acid trip and "Teletubbies", with the centrepiece of the set design a circus tent populated by politely applauding extras and two mimes, the purpose of whom seems to be to take coats and make nuisances of themselves in the traditional mime fashion. It's The Celestine Prophecy for dumb kids the same way that The Celestine Prophecy is The Celestine Prophecy for dumb adults: the newest volume of text written by illiterate folks for the insectile consumption of undiscriminating consumers too lazy or too gaffed to demand a higher standard for the ways in which life is sucked out of their chests. Mueller-Stahl is fine in his Uncle Remus sort of way whereas Kelley (whose character is referred to sometimes as "Ryan Flannigan," which would confuse if anyone were actually paying attention) is so good in Mean Creek that I'm inclined to try to erase that he was ever in this thing from the ol' memory banks. In all fairness, there's not even much chance that the easiest of audiences will get a lot from this picture, as its message of Death, Be Not Proud is hopelessly obscured by the bumbling opacity of the presentation. The Dust Factory is tooth-pullingly awful--I was rooting for the motes. Originally published: October 27, 2004.