“Wildlife” is just plain wonderful, and I’ll explain the plain part in a minute. This coming-of-age drama is the directorial debut of the actor Paul Dano; he and Zoe Kazan adapted the screenplay from the novel by Richard Ford. The time is 1960, the place is Montana and the hero, a lonely 14-year-old named Joe Brinson, is trying to understand the ways of the world through his suddenly fractured family. He’s played with great tenderness by Ed Oxenbould, who has an open, expectant face that recalls Paul Dano’s character in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the almost silent brother yearning to be a test pilot.
Joe has no ambitions he can put his finger on. All knows is that he doesn’t want to play football, in spite of 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 can’t get along is the stuff of classic first films like this one. Midcentury Montana isn’t far removed from the America of the 1920s or 1930s, when life was plain—that’s reflected beautifully in the film—and people kept a safe distance from their feelings. Jerry is a teaching pro at a small-town golf course, and a Willy Loman of the fairways. He nurses a delusion that his failure to thrive comes from being too well liked. When he goes off to fight a wildfire raging out of control in the mountains, he leaves his son heartbroken, and his wife bitter. “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. Carey Mulligan shows her character no mercy, at least on the surface; her performance is startling, and for the most part unsparing; it’s the best thing she’s ever done on screen.
Joe is caught between love of his father and loyalty to his mother, and comes to see both of them in a new light. It’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 their faces, and where this beautiful film finds the shot that defines its stirring subject.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.