Do you know what they call the trees that remain standing after a fire sweeps through a forest? That’s the question Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS; AN EDUCATION) puts to her 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), in WILDLIFE, the directorial debut by actor Paul Dano (12 YEARS A SLAVE; THERE WILL BE BLOOD). The answer is “The standing dead”, which is exactly how Jeanette feels after her husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME; THE SISTERS BROTHERS; LIFE; DEMOLITION) temporarily leaves them to go fight a wildfire on the US-Canada border.
The time is 1960 and the Brinsons live a quiet, lower-middle class existence in a small Montana town. Jerry is a golf pro at a local club, Jeanette is a stay-at-home housewife and mom, and Joe is an average student at the local high school. Their Norman Rockwell existence starts unravelling when Jerry loses his job for hustling some of the club’s members, pushing both Jeanette and Joe to find part-time work to make ends meet while Jerry gets back on his feet. When Jerry leaves them though, Jeanette decides it time for big life changes and she throws herself at Warren Miller (Bill Camp, VICE; RED SPARROW), a well-off businessman whose wife left him years earlier. For Joe, it’s the first time that he sees his parents as people who are imperfect.
WILDLIFE premiered at Sundance in 2018 and came here for a couple of screenings last September as part of the Sundance Film Festival in Hong Kong. (If you blinked, you missed them.) Since then it has gone on to win a handful of festival and film critics’ awards for Dano and Oxenbould. As good as (the then 16-year-old) Oxenbould is, it’s Mulligan who delivers a stellar on-screen performance that many have called her best ever. It’s a bit shocking, not just for young Joe but for us too, how quickly her Betty Crocker façade crumbles away once Jerry leaves, which illustrates to Joe not only how fragile his parents’ marriage really is but also how complicated, or perhaps human, they are. It’s a lesson that he takes in with surprising maturity.
If you missed seeing WILDLIFE on the festival circuit, don’t sweat it. It’s available now on a number of pay-per-view streaming services. Definitely check it out!
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, August 16th, 8:30 am HK time!
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