Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: Casey Affleck, Noah Jupe, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Messina, Jack Dylan Grazer, Walton Goggins, Beau Bridges
Synopsis: What if a childhood dream suddenly came true–-but thirty years later? That’s what happened to singer/songwriter Donnie Emerson. His dream of success suddenly–and unexpectedly–came true but only as he approached 50 years old. And while it brought hopes of second chances, it also brought ghosts of the past and long-buried emotions as Donnie, his brother Joe and their entire family came to terms with their newly found fame.
Thoughts: By the end of writer/director Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild (the opening night selection of the 42nd Minneapolis International Film Festival), many of my personal boxes had been checked. Quiet indie vibe? Check. Music biopic with a tender heart? Check Check. Frustrated grown men with unresolved dad issues and brothers that don’t communicate but need to talk about all their feelings? A hat trick of checks. What keeps Dreamin’ Wild with its head so firmly above water is that same moving spirit that propelled Pohlad’s 2014 Brian Wilson biography Love & Mercy to become such an unexpected critical and word-of-mouth hit. Now Pohlad returns for another musical tale, bringing to the screen the true story of musician Donnie Emerson and his brother Jeff, who found a second chance at fame when both least expected it. The circumstances in which it occurred sound like a concoction worked up for movie schmaltz, but the film is based on a New York Times feature by Steven Kurutz published in 2012.
As Donnie, Casey Affleck has his vocals dubbed, but everything else about his performance is raw and real. There are hints of his Oscar-winning role in Manchester by the Sea at times, but perhaps here there’s an even more world-weariness at the opportunities he expected that never came to be. We understand early on Donnie was a genius talent who, like many, existed in obscurity until a random twist of fate caught him and his family in the spotlight. That renewed interest brings back good and bad memories; inevitable tensions solidify with older brother Joe (a superb Walton Goggins), and Donnie’s guilt over his father going into debt to finance his young career is reignited. Scenes between Affleck and Beau Bridges as his dad are achingly real – it’s the best Bridges has been in ages.
Noah Jupe fills out the cast as young Donnie, with Jack Dylan Grazer as young Joe. I couldn’t quite see Jupe growing up to be Affleck (much like I couldn’t see Paul Dano’s Brian Wilson growing up to be John Cusack’s Wilson in Love and Mercy), but both actors find overlap in each other’s performance that helped the viewer see them both as the same person. In a post-screening QA, Pohlad spoke of his use of ‘magical realism’ to push some of the narrative boundaries; Affleck and Jupe benefit from this technique in one highly effective scene together.
If one person gets short shrift, it’s Zooey Deschanel as Donnie’s wife, Nancy. Though Deschanel has the opportunity to sing several times (like Jupe, she does her own singing) and has a few standout scenes, she’s often absent. Come to think of it, the children Donnie and Nancy share are also out of the picture after the first ten minutes. Pohlad may not be great about tying up all the loose ends or connecting each dot. Still, he’s wise enough for much of Dreamin’ Wild to fill the connective tissue between reactionary beats with material that rewards the emotional maturity of his audience.