What more could anyone ask for—spoiler alert: the answer is nothing—than an affecting coming-of-age drama based on a superb book and directed by an exceptional actor in his directorial debut? The film is “Wildlife” and the director is Paul Dano. He worked from a screenplay that Zoe Kazan and he adapted from the Richard Ford novel. The hero is a lonely teenager in Montana in 1960, trying to understand the ways of the world through his suddenly fractured family. The director doesn’t appear on screen, and his protagonist isn’t a stand-in for himself: At the age of 14, Joe Brinson is already his own boy on the way to becoming a man. Still, Joe, played with great tenderness by Ed Oxenbould, has an open, expectant face that recalls Mr. Dano’s character in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the all-but-silent brother yearning to be a test pilot.
Joe has no ambitions he can put his finger on, though he’s smart and good-hearted, and we know from the start what he barely suspects, that he’ll do just fine once his bad times are behind him. All he knows now is that he doesn’t want to play football, despite his father’s urgings, and that he wishes his parents would get along—Jake Gyllenhaal is his father, Jerry; Carey Mulligan is his mother, Jeanette.
Why they don’t—why they can’t—is the stuff of classic fiction, and of classic first films like this one. (Diego García did the spare, sharp-eyed cinematography.) Midcentury Montana isn’t far removed from the America of earlier decades, when life was plain and people kept a safe distance from their feelings. Jerry, an overeager teaching pro at a small-town golf course, is a Willy Loman of the fairways. He nurses a delusion that his failure to thrive comes from being too well liked: “They just don’t want small people like us to get ahead.” When he goes off to fight a wildfire raging out of control in the mountains—others in his crew look like grim-faced WPA workers during the Great Depression—Jerry leaves Joe anguished and bewildered, and Jeanette embittered. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” she asks, as if she doesn’t understand that her husband is a beaten man.
The longer Jerry stays away, the more Joe idealizes him as a wise and caring father who’ll make things right when he returns. In the here and now, however, the boy can’t ignore Jeanette’s transformation from his beloved mom, and his dad’s determined helpmate, into a quietly fierce woman with a metallic edge to her voice, a sexual creature who’ll do whatever she must to survive.
Ms. Mulligan shows her character no mercy, at least on the surface; her performance is startling, and for the most part unsparing. When Jeanette was young, she tells Joe, she was a “chute beauty,” hanging around rodeos to call attention to herself. Now her features are turning harsh, her seductiveness discomfiting. “My desperation dress,” she tells Joe, showing him a chartreuse number she plans to wear when they pay a social call on a man named Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a local car dealer who, in his affluent middle age, drives a pink Cadillac with upswept tail fins and interminable fenders.
However strong the potential for stereotype may be, Warren is more interesting than you might expect. That’s a tribute to the always excellent Mr. Camp, and to Mr. Dano’s astute direction, but also to the adaptation, which preserves distinctive passages from Mr. Ford’s novel. (“Other people’s incompetency made me rich,” Warren says, almost endearingly. A story he tells about gliding silently in a plane near a flock of migratory geese is both poetic and emotionally ambiguous.)
When Jerry finally does come back home—Mr. Gyllenhaal makes him a haunting, hollow-eyed revenant—he is changed in at least one respect, having learned all too well the fearsome power of fire. Joe, caught between love of his father and loyalty to his mother, sees both of them in a new light. That’s the nature of coming-of-age stories, and the camera on the boy’s face is like an MRI that reveals his feelings in real time. But another camera figures in the action, one that Joe has learned to use at his part-time job in a portrait studio. That’s where people from town come to be photographed with hopeful smiles on display, and where this beautiful film finds the shot that defines its stirring subject.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at email@example.com
Appeared in the October 19, 2018, print edition as ‘‘Wildlife’: A Family’s Ardent, Troubled Heart.’