“Ninomiya lets a lengthy scene in a coffee shop and later outside on the pavement play out languidly and full of pauses and pensive looks, and somehow it works.”
Something is off with Shuhei Suenaga. His wife Akiko knows it. His daughter Yuma knows it. His best friend Ishida knows it. Even the waitress at his favourite breakfast spot knows it. The high school vice principal is behaving oddly. Stuck in a loveless marriage with a wife who cheats on him (something Shuhei is aware of), and with a daughter who is perpetually glued to the couch and her phone, initially Shuhei’s day-to-day work at the school seems not out of the ordinary. In fact, in everything it looks as if Mr. Suenaga is a calm and friendly teacher who tries to guide his pupils in honesty. But now, a year from retirement, he is forced to reflect on his life and comes to the conclusion: was this what I wanted to achieve, and is this how I want to go on? And thus come the desperate attempts to spice up life, completely out of character. One morning he decides not to pay for his breakfast. He tries to get frisky with his wife. He asks his daughter for that hip energy drink. But since all of these things go against his reserved and docile nature, they only send him into deeper crisis.
“You’re fine as you are,” says one of the characters at some point during Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Dreaming in Between, an actor/director whose fourth film as a helmer led him to Cannes’ most outside section ACID. The line succinctly sums up the idea of this small and gentle character piece that comes and goes and never lingers, but astutely captures that feeling of ennui that hits so many people around the age of Shuhei Suenaga. As timid as he is, he simply goes through a distinctly low-key midlife crisis. Perhaps it’s the mundanity of this phenomenon that keeps the memorability of Dreaming in Between low, but as you watch you can’t help but become enamoured with the friendly and measured protagonist.
Part of the reason for that, besides Ninomiya’s engaging script, is Ken Mitsuishi’s fine central performance as the vice principal-in-crisis. The veteran actor with the melancholic face endearingly renders the quiet despair creeping up on Shuhei, but also the fatherly wisdom he not only expends on his students, but also on Hiraga, the waitress who he takes around town on a trip down memory lane in the film’s final act. The young girl has dreams of her own and slowly reveals herself to be a blunt and self-centered antithesis to Shuhei. Yet it is also to her that Shuhei said, when she was his student, to just be who she is; something that has stuck with her and saved her. The words are unspoken, but suicide seems to be implied.
It is this lengthy conversation between two antipodes that forms the dramatic crescendo of the film, even if the performances are quite understated, with Miyu Yoshimoto’s cool façade a fascinating contrast to Mitsuishi’s open-faced protagonist. Ninomiya lets a lengthy scene in a coffee shop and later outside on the pavement play out languidly and full of pauses and pensive looks, and somehow it works. Dreaming in Between is not a film to cause waves, ripples at best, but in moments like these one senses that Ninomiya has a great film in him. Dreaming in Between is not that film, but it is a pleasant enough 90 minutes that show promise in both writing and directing.