After a special Q&A at an AOL Build show, I told Paul Dano: “Little Miss Sunshine” change my life. That is my all-time favorite performance from him, and he continues giving profound performances in such films as “There Will Be Blood,” “Prisoners,” and even his small role in “12 Years a Slave.”

This time, Dano doesn’t star in “Wildlife,” instead he directs and co-writes with his girlfriend Zoe Kazan. Adapting Richard Ford’s book took a lot of consideration and challenges, but these two succeed incredibly. This reminds me of how Greta Gerwig stepped up her game last year by not acting in but directing “Lady Bird.”

The movie is set in 1960, and focuses on 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), who moves to Montana with his parents Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, also a producer) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), when his father thinks he can take shortcuts in providing for his family. His current job is at the local golf course, but he gets canned, and begins looking for another job. That also applies for Jeanette, who used to be a substitute teacher, and Joe, who lands a job taking family portraits.

Meanwhile, wildfires are spreading, and looking for work, Jerry decides to fight the fires. This infuriates Jeanette up to the point of her taking a darker step in their marriage. Not that kind of step, but the “sleeping with her new boss (Bill Camp)” kind-of-step.

Joe does his best to go through his mother’s depression, especially when he finds out about her affair, and when she sometimes insults him. He wants to know where his family will end up.

“Wildlife” is a bold project from Dano, who brings it all together with such artistic performances, gripping drama, beautiful scenery, and Kazan’s help. It deals with family issues that often happen in a boy’s life, thus making it a coming-of-age story; and it offers sentimental values in the characters and tone.

At times we cringe at Mulligan’s behavior towards her son after her husband leaves, but she does a perfect job portraying her. Oxenbould has really grown up. He started off as a kid in such films as “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Day” and “The Visit,” but as a teenager, he’s exceptional. His performance is at the level of Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood.” Camp is also amazing as Mulligan’s lover, in the ways he isn’t the typical abusive guy, but a wealthy businessman. And Gyllenhaal is unbelievable as the loving father, who wants to take shortcuts in jobs, and eventually learns about his wife’s affair. This is a dream cast, all guided tremendously by Dano.

This is a human movie that never follows the typical period drama or coming-of-age-story cliches, but explodes with such grip and texture. We’re eager to know which direction the family will lean towards, and how they’ll overcome it. This is a people movie about people.


Playing in New York and Los Angeles

Categories: Drama

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