Courtesy of IFC Films
As an actor whose career has crossed paths with Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Bill Pohlad, and Joon-ho Bong, it's easy to see why Paul Dano made the leap to directing his first feature. Dano's directorial debut, “Wildlife,” - which he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan - paints fascinating images about one families hardships, trials, and tribulations. All told through the perspective of a fifteen year old. The film is impressive in that Dano doesn't rush for flashy and stylistically challenging devices; and not impressive in its stirring resonance. Dano allows his actors to dictate the story, but they seem to get lost along the way.
Though setting a film in the mid-1950s would provide obstacles for any first time filmmaker, it's easily the most intriguing aspect about “Wildlife.” The title derives from the mountainous Montana landscape where the story takes place. Ed Oxenbould ("Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day") convincingly plays Joe, your average high schooler trying to figure out his strengths and weaknesses. Does he want to play football? Or snag a part-time job taking professional photographs? His dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal in a quietly somber portrayal), would prefer the former, while his mom, Jeanette (Cary Mulligan - giving an award worthy performance), the latter.
Joe offers contrast in that he's able to make mature and smart decisions while his parents bicker like elementary schoolers. It doesn't help that Jerry lost his job at the local golf-course for being overly polite with guests, binding him in a tricky spot. Instead of looking for work within his own backyard, he chooses to run off and fight wildfires engulfing the state (rather than figuring out his own fire at home). Leaving Jeanette stranded as the mother tasked with putting food on the table. At the time, women were starting to become defiant, and actually thought for themselves. So when Jerry decides to leave the picture, this gives her the motivation to strike up an affair with a wounded veteran (Bill Camp) she meets while teaching swim lessons at the YMCA.
Caught in the middle, we see Joe struggle with a family that's clearly fractured and Dano conveys those scenes with a timely sense of urgency (and unintentionally topical as California is dealing with their own wildfire crisis as of this writing). Sadly, those moody and dry encounters take the dramatic tension out of certain areas. It feels like Dano is trying to confess something, but he doesn't put his finger on the trigger. Certainty the director has an eye for leaving an impact (the last shot of “Wildlife” is the only way I could envision this movie ending). No question the film is easy to admire: After all, this is a quietly subtle story that more or less exists to showcase terrific performances. But so often, the film can't find the scenes necessary to truly make an emotional influence.