Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
|Better than Average
|• Teens • Young-Adults • Adults
|Biography Drama Music
|1 hr. 51 min.
|Year of Release:
September 7, 2022 (79th Venice International Film Festival, Italy)
April 13, 2023 (US film festival)
August 4, 2023 (limited—402 theaters)
DVD: September 19, 2023
About MUSIC in the Bible
Singer/songwriter Donnie Emerson and his family
Originally released in 1979, the “Dreamin’ Wild” album was recorded in a family built home studio in rural Washington
Self-financed—at great cost—by their father, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges), a logger and a gentle, emotionally generous family man whose acreage dwindled as he poured money into his sons’ aspirations
Disappointment —“We put all we had into it and no one liked it.”
Regrets and self-recrimination
Unexpected change in life providing a second chance
Teenage dream deferred
Being thrust into newly found fame
Family relationships and issues
What is true love and how do you know when you have found it?
Love and redemption
For a follower of Christ, what is LOVE—a feeling, an emotion, or an action?
Casey Affleck … Donnie Emerson
Walton Goggins … Joe Emerson
Zooey Deschanel … Nancy
Beau Bridges … Don Emerson Sr.
Chris Messina … Matt Sullivan
Noah Jupe … Teenage Donnie
Jack Dylan Grazer … Young Joe
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River Road Entertainment
SPG3 Entertainment [Switzerland]
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|Roadside Attractions, a division of Lionsgate Films
It is rare that a product from Hollywood or the indie circuit emerges which has a dramatic force that is sincere and relatable as well as principled. Bill Pohlad’s “Dreamin’ Wild” is such a film. I have not seen anything like this modest movie in quite some time, and it certainly softens the disillusionment I feel when I ponder the state of today’s cinema.
Every scene in “Dreamin’ Wild” hits home with a naturalness that feels unrehearsed and unshaped. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The film’s unpolished look made me feel as though I was listening in on real conversations of real people, and actually sitting at their dining room tables hearing them open their hearts. As in real life, things don’t happen in ways that one might anticipate. The characters behave and react unexpectedly in the context of a work of fictional drama, but very expectedly in the undramatic, and often dreary, patterns of everyday life.
Pohlad’s screenplay is based on the true story of Donnie and Joe Emerson who, as teenage musicians in the late 1970s, put out a pop album financed mostly through the efforts of their father, Don Emerson Sr. (Beau Bridges). The record was unsuccessful when it was released, and quickly forgotten.
Thirty some years later, Donnie runs a barely surviving recording studio on the outskirts of Seattle earning a meager supplemental income playing small scale wedding banquets with a band that consists of local friends and his wife, Nancy (Zooey Deschanel). Joe (Walton Goggins) works on the family farm in rural Fruitland, Washington, having forgone his dreams of being a drummer in Donnie’s band or pursuing music at all. He is satisfied to live a life of contented, if unheralded, bliss.
Their fortunes change when Donnie and Joe’s seventies album, called “Dreamin’ Wild,” gets renewed attention on modern social media websites that revive rock and roll albums lost to time. Those sites use the force of the Internet to bring attention to forgotten musical gems, and try to re-issue them in modern formats. A record producer who specializes in remastering and re-marketing old recordings visits the Emerson family and persuades them to launch a comeback. The Emerson’s are dubious at first (“we don’t have the Internet out here”), but begin to cooperate with the record company, the media, and even the New York Times.
Such a plot structure looks like a set-up for an underdog’s obstacle-laden but undaunted climb to the top, but the film takes a different course, one that brings a family’s past to the surface, illuminating its conflicts, but also its strengths.
Casey Affleck plays Donnie as a man in search of judgment and atonement, never one to balance his good deeds with the bad ones, pushing himself to always focus on the latter. The performance is not all that different than the anguished husband and father he portrayed in “Manchester By the Sea,” one that earned him an Oscar. Affleck makes the tormented souls he portrays sympathetic by playing them in the most unsympathetic ways. He shuns gestures or glances that would soften up an audience and draw us closer to him. He’s a less comic version of Mickey Rourke, never wasting a tear, hiding a wart, or asking us to give him a break.
Walton Goggins plays Donnie’s brother, Joe (the younger versions of both men are evocatively played by Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer) as a relaxed counterpoint to Affleck’s about to pop guitar-string psyche. Goggins, usually cast in character parts, shines in a difficult supporting role that calls on him to be both determined and resigned, accepting of the fact that his brother will always outshine him musically, but never stooping to resentment or despair.
Zooey Deschanel is cast against type as Donnie’s wife, Nancy. Deschanel eschews her usual deadpan sarcasm for a warmer and more genuine persona. Nancy steadies her husband and is unafraid to chastise him during band rehearsals: “The name of the song is ‘Good Time.’ You’re supposed to be having one. You’re not.” A drummer herself, Nancy could have easily usurped Joe’s position in the band, and it looks as though that is where the plot is headed, but in a subtle and charming Ernst Lubitsch-like way, things turn in a less expected and more touching direction.
Beau Bridges performance as Don Emerson Sr. is the film’s jewel. He is the family patriarch who gives his all for the benefit of his sons, sacrificing a good part of the family farm and fortune, and his own health, to raise the money the brothers need to pursue their dreams of musical success. Bridges portrays Don Sr. as constant, rarely changing and always dependable.
He is deeply religious, and that aspect of his character, and of his family, is played subtly but unapologetically. Their faith in God binds and grounds them all, prayer being an essential part of their lives. So is work: “You exhaust the body, you free the mind,” the father tells the sons.
“Dreamin’ Wild” deals with the human conflict of deciphering who we could have been versus who we are. Its theme focuses not on loss, but on good things: family, work, faith and fatherhood. In Hebrews chapter 12, the Apostle Paul teaches us that God raises us as a father does a son, treating each of us as his own. That providence has no beginning and no end, and lets nothing happen in our fallen world that does not have some kernel of goodness, some piece of Himself, within it.
The father in this movie roots the story and represents the need not just for an earthly father, but for a spiritual one as well. The salvation that we seek can be ours when we place our faith in that Father’s word, and we realize that the hard knocks we encounter in our everyday lives are best understood in the context of the greater ones that He suffered for our sake.
I grew up watching movies, and loving them. But lately, something has fallen away, and I often ask myself if it would be better to stop going to see them.
“Dreamin’ Wild” answered my question: “No.”
Movies can still mean something. There is always hope, even in Hollywood.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.