Growing up is difficult for Joe (excellent Ed Oxenbould) in “Wildlife,” shown in the 2018 New York Film Festival and now in release. He must deal with the disarray in the lives of his parents in the film directed by Paul Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel.
Set in the 1960s in Montana, the story focuses on Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson, a man who can’t find a satisfactory place in life. He works on a golf course, but gets fired for being too cozy with members with whom he likes to chat, and when he is offered the opportunity to return, his sense of dignity leads him to refuse no matter how badly he needs money for keeping up with expenses.
Carey Mulligan plays his wife, Jeanette, who stoically tries to cope as best as she can with the difficult circumstances. But her patience runs out when Jerry suddenly get a bug that he can fulfill himself and gain self-satisfaction by enlisting to fight forest fires raging in the state. Jeanette is appalled that he would go off to risk his life when he has a family.
Jeanette gets a job as a swimming instructor, and soon she is being pursued by one of the enrollees, Warren (Bill Camp), who has a successful automobile business. Warren, although older and not especially attractive, is Mr. Nice Guy, and an affair blossoms while Jerry is off battling blazes.
I’m not sure I buy the personality transformation Jeanette undergoes, although the affair itself has its logic. She also doesn’t hide her liaison from Joe, and it is from his viewpoint that the film achieves its greatest poignancy. Joe must learn to fend for himself emotionally no matter what the situation with his parents becomes. Oxenbould does a fine job in portraying Joe, which is a highlight of the film.
One gets caught up in wondering how it will all turn out, which is a tribute to this first directorial job by Dano and to the screenplay. Sympathy is engendered for the parents, as well as for Joe, thanks to the solid acting by Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, and “Wildlife” emerges as a solid drama. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 19, 2018.