Actor Paul Dano is known for his honest portrayals of young men desperately trying to find themselves. Whether it’s a military bound son whose life path is disrupted when he discovers he’s colorblind in Little Miss Sunshine or musical savant Bryan Wilson trying to juggle fame, mental illness, and an abusive childhood, Dano has mastered playing the archetype of a young man coming of age. In Wildlife, his first film in the director’s chair, Dano’s uses his mastery of the coming of age genre to breathe life into an otherwise derivative plot.
It’s a story that has been told before. Father loses his job, mother and son step up financially resulting in the father losing his pride and leaving his family for some bigger purpose, in this case, the Montana wildfires that are burning the mountains around them. The marriage breaks down, leaving the entire family affected in the wake of change. Based off Richard Ford’s 1990 book of the same name, the story is told from son’s Joe perspective. This is not a fresh enough take to make the story seem new. Despite a tight script, also written by Dano and his partner, actress Zoe Kazan, the dialogue does not consistently succeed in elevating the subject matter. Did the world need another story of a 1960s white family in limbo? No, but Dano’s directing saves the film from an overly told story.
Told from Joe’s perspective, director Dano does a wonderful job showing how Joe’s world is burning around him. In one scene, Joe and his mother (Carey Mulligan) drive through the smoking mountains, his mother trying to show her son what his father left him for. Though we see the smoke coming from the mountain, we down see the burning mountain until the end of the scene, the visual metaphor of Joe realizing too late that his family is dissolving.
Dano’s directing provides Ed Oxenbould’s Joe with the psychological depth to make him seem sympatric, something that might not have been achieved otherwise. Oxenbould plays Joe with quiet angst, teetering between trusting and rebelling against his mother. The combination between Dano’s directing and Oxenbould’s performance creates Joe’s credibility as a lead. Dano’s panning point of view shots combined with Oxenbould’s subtle yet emotional performance catapults the audience to the end of the film.
Despite a recycled plot, Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal bring complexity, depth, and empathy to two otherwise unlikable characters. Mulligan powerful performance as an angry jilted wife turns heartbreakingly menacing as a mother who loses her place when her husband goes to find himself. Mulligan plays Jean as the dutiful wife and mother, whipping into a spiteful, attention-seeking hysteric with a tinge of incestuous energy at a moment’s notice. Gyllenhaal’s part is well played as a man who goes leaves his family to gain some control over his life, only to return to find he has lost control of his family. Maybe a bit predictable, Gyllenhaal plays Jerry with likable sympathy.
Despite the over worn premise, Wildlife’s plot hinges on Mulligan’s and Oxenbould’s performances, providing complex relatability to captivate its audience. The performances, along with Dano’s directing, elevate an otherwise old story. Together they tell a coming of age tale, one that doesn’t deaminize its characters, but one that realizes the complexity of being an adult.
Wildlife hits select D.C area theaters this weekend, starting October 26th.
Final Grade: B