Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut, is a scorching coming-of-age drama starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, with a compelling debut from Ed Oxenbould.
Ring of Fireby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Teenage Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould in an exceptional debut) becomes wise beyond his years as he sees the breakup of his mismatched parents’ marriage.
His father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has moved the family to a small Montana town on the edge of the Rockies, where he’s working as a golf professional. It’s not explicit, but it seems like a fresh start. But he loses his job through being over-familiar with his clients – “too personable” is his explanation – and then is too proud to accept when he’s offered it back. Instead, he leaves the family to join the local men camped out in the country fighting wildfires that could threaten the town.
Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, in a role that’s somewhat similar to the one she played in Mudbound) is at first a prim ‘50s housewife, a former supply teacher who seems too good for her feckless husband, despite their genuine love. But when he leaves, she has to find a way of supporting Joe and herself. It’s a humiliation: she takes any job she can find and, in self-preservation, strikes up a relationship with an older widower, the well-off owner of a car sales business, Warren (Bill Camp).
The claustrophobic small-town atmosphere of the period is a beautifully recreated symbol of ’50’s Americana. The town itself sits in stunningly photographed neverending landscapes with far-off snowy mountains, forest fires and, as the seasons change, threatening snow.
We see events through Joe’s unflinching yet understanding eyes. His well-meaning but shiftless dad drinks but it doesn’t mean he’s not trying to be a good father and that he’s more sensitive than he appears. Joe’s unhappy and increasingly desperate mother drags him into her attempted seduction of the disabled Warren in the course of an embarrassing evening. This is a transaction where each of them will be blatantly using the other and all Warren needs to do is cynically bide his time – yet he’s not a bad man.
And while all this is going on, Joe has to deal with his schoolwork, first love and first job – and growing up. To help his mother out when they’re left alone together, he takes a job after school with the local photographer, who specialises in portraits of happy families – a metaphor that develops throughout the film.
Wildlife is a well-made, insightful adaptation by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan of a novel by Richard Ford. Cinematically it weaves in the image of the wildfires with small-town America and the lives of its three protagonists and it’s searingly well acted by all.
Wildlife screened at Sundance, Cannes and at the BFI London Film Festival. It is released on 9 November 2018 in the UK.