Being a child in the centre of a deteriorating marriage is a stressful situation to be part of; being a teenager in the same situation is tougher still, for one must also contend with the changes their body is going through. It’s the kind of conflict that makes for a perfect coming-of-age story, of which this film is not an example.
In the autumn of 1960, only child Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living happily with his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and mother Janette (Carey Mulligan) in rural Montana, where the only threat to their lives is a wildfire burning in the distance. But after losing his job as a greenskeeper at the local golf club, Jerry finds himself income, leaving the other two family members to earn an income – Janette as a swim teacher, and Joe as a camera assistant at the local photography studio.
Jerry eventually gains employment as a low-paid firefighter helping to contain the distant blaze, leaving Janette in a state of unhappiness and Joe to complete chores around the house, his school grades suffering as a result. Wanting to alleviate her mood, Janette begins an affair with overweight car salesman Warren Miller (Bill Camp) under the pretence of finding work, either for herself or Jerry. Joe, meanwhile, is left to ponder why his mother is so attracted to Mr Miller.
Wildlife is a partnership between two figures better recognised for their acting abilities: Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan. The former, best known for his roles in Little Miss Sunshine and Swiss Army Man, takes on the role of director; the latter, who appeared in last year’s critically-acclaimed The Big Sick, is credited as an executive producer; both are responsible for crafting the screenplay, which has been adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name.
Dano and Kazan benefit from having a strong, talented cast at their disposal, including two Oscar nominees – Gyllenhaal, Mulligan – and Australian youngster Oxenbould, who previously delighted in the films Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Paper Planes. Disappointingly, none of these players provide a noteworthy performance, with Oxenbould being blandest of all. In fairness, this is hardly the fault of the young actor, whose protagonist is pretty bland and uninteresting to begin with.
Although its story is seen from an adolescent’s perspective, there’s little else that identifies Wildlife as a coming-of-age picture. The only noticeable trope is Joe’s teenage love-interest, Ruth (Zoe Margaret Colletti) whose inclusion is so inconsequential to the plot one must wonder why her character was necessary. Furthering this problem, Wildlife has a distinct lack of humour, thus making it dull and unappealing to, what should be, its target audience.
What Wildlife excels at doing is detailing the troubles of, and between, Joe’s parents. As the fractures in their relationship develop, Jerry and Janette become increasingly pained, and its during this time that Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, respectively, demonstrate their potential as actors; parting ways, the characters become withdrawn, shadows of their former selves. In short, Jerry and Janette’s responses to the break-up are the most fascinating aspect of the story.
Praise must also be given to Dano for his direction – despite Wildlife being his first time helming a feature-length film, he appears to have a firm grasp of the medium. Joe’s world is unlike any other in this genre, being graceful and quiet, mirroring the beautiful landscapes of Montana, and rarely succumbing to scenes of melodrama. It’s also a remarkably mature movie, opting not to let its characters yell at each other and instead respond to situations with composure and dignity, for the most part.
Wildlife succeeds not as a film about teenagehood, but an adult-oriented drama that explores the pain of separation. A sensible and thoughtful experience though it may be, ultimately there isn’t enough material to maintain the interest of a younger viewer.
This review was originally published by SYN Media on October 30th, 2018.