Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife is a deeply affecting drama that asks us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the people closest to us, from the perspective of a young boy bearing witness to his parents’ crumbling marriage.
14-year-old Joe Brinson and his parents Jerry and Jeanette have the picture-perfect nuclear lifestyle in rural Montana, 1960. As far as Joe is concerned, his parents are very much in love, and he wants for little despite their modest income. When Jerry is suddenly fired and struggles to find new work, Jeanette and Joe both take on jobs to support the family, but unwittingly create a rift that splinters until the family is broken beyond repair. Unable to cope with the emasculation of his demotion from breadwinner, Jerry leaves their home to become a volunteer firefighter, joining the valiant but treacherous effort to quell the rapidly burning forest fires in the surrounding woodland area. Confused and afraid, Joe is left to witness his mother’s spiral into depression and anger, manifested in her selfish pursuit of a rich widower.
Dano’s film captures a heart-breaking paradox; the complex mess of loving your parents whilst having to come to terms with the fact that they are themselves complex, messy people. They can make mistakes, can be hurtful and even cruel. But to Joe, they are still his parents. And though their love may have run its course, they are still inextricably linked by what they created; a hope that Joe clings to even until the film’s final moments. Ed Oxenbould’s performance is beautifully judged, the development of Joe’s blissful ignorance into confusion and frustration at his parents’ actions acutely measured. Remaining tied to his character throughout the narrative is a disorienting and upsetting experience, and we cling to his naïve hopes with the same childhood innocence.
The admirable feat of Wildlife is that it doesn’t try to make you hate any of its characters. Or love them, for that matter. It simply presents a reality – one that many of us have experienced, and know first-hand the murky grey area of blame and responsibility when it comes to the breakdown of a relationship. The portrayal of Jeanette in particular is remarkable in that it is rare to see a woman so freely exercise her bitterness; though her choices seem increasingly callous, Jeanette is entirely authentic as a desperate woman whose life is collapsing around her. Though it’s easy to resent a mother for failing to put her child first, actress Carey Mulligan herself defended the importance of depicting women behaving recklessly and making bad decisions, for which men are often so easily forgiven.
Wildlife tells a story that will leave its impression long after the credits roll. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but a necessary reminder that parents are not indestructible, and though idealism can be comforting, it is equally precarious.
by Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is a northerner currently studying film at King’s College London, and recently completed a semester at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not in fact an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, Singin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln