Movie Review: Wildlife

Tender coming of age story will quietly break your heart.

In his directorial debut, the actor Paul Dano has made an achingly intimate and lovingly composed coming-of-age film about a teenage boy watching the erosion of his parents’ marriage in early 1960s Montana.

Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is a classic good kid. He idolizes his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and has a (perfectly normal) Oedipal crush on his former beauty queen mother, Jeannette (Carey Mulligan). He gets good grades, plays football (but only because his dad wants him to), and smiles fondly when he sees his parents being affectionate with each other in the kitchen.

Then one day, Jerry loses his job at the neighborhood country club and, through a combination of masculine pride and perhaps a touch of restlessness, leaves home and takes a job fighting an enormous forest fire that is threatening, miles away. Jeannette is furious, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d expect. Yes, she fears for Jerry’s life (he’s never fought fires before). And yes, she’s disturbed he didn’t consult with her before accepting the job. But mostly she’s angry because Jerry has agency and she doesn’t. As the film makes clear, the family has moved several times, always accommodating Jerry’s unstable employment history. And each time, Jeannette is meant to make a home and be a passively supportive mother and wife. She feels stuck. With Jerry gone, her restlessness and dissatisfaction with her own life comes into high relief.

The acting here is first rate. Young Oxenbould, who, it should be noted, bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Paul Dano, is in every scene—we watch the events unfold through his wide, wary eyes. He’s 14—the age when most of us begin to realize that our parents are flawed and altogether human—but his growing up happens too fast, all at once. Suddenly, he sees his mom as not just a happy homemaker, but a woman with desires and unfulfilled passions and a deep cynicism about her role in the world. Likewise, his father is not some masculine ideal, but a bit of a loser who drinks too much and must answer to other, more powerful men. As the film goes on, each of his parents become less glamorous, more flawed, more real in Joe’s eyes—and the performances by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal reflect that perception.

It’s not surprising that Dano, who co-wrote the script based on Richard Ford’s novel with his partner, the actress and writer Zoe Kazan, would be a great director of actors, but he demonstrates keen visual instincts as well. We get a strong sense of both the vastness of Montana and the spare tidiness of Joe’s now-disrupted world. Some of the scenes have even a painterly beauty that evokes Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.

Wildlife is a quiet film, but it sneaks up on you, gaining in emotional urgency as it goes on. It never overplays its hand. The final scene is a well-earned gut punch.

Wildlife is now playing at the Parkway Theatre.