Bill Pohlad’s directorial, Dreamin’ Wild (2023), is essentially about dreams whose realization arrives late with its own set of reckonings. In the film, when the dream does come true, a lot of time has passed, and people and their priorities may have changed, as well as their primary connection to the art that is having a resurgent moment. While listeners have found a huge resonance with a 70s album by the two central brothers, Donnie (Casey Affleck) and Joe Emerson (Walton Goggins), composed and produced by them in their teenage years, the artists themselves have somewhat strayed far from what they created and evoked.
Donnie, who now works gigs here and there with his wife, Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), is not very enthused, unlike his family, when an indie music label producer, Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), shows up proposing to team up, market and make a fresh sale of the remastered album by Donnie and Joe. It is 2011, nearly decades after the brothers released it. Back then, it had barely made a mark. But now, as Sullivan giddily informs them, someone discovered it and put it on the net, and since then, the album has generated a massive buzz. Unlike an excited Joe, Donnie is initially skeptical of the deal, having been through the grind of hollow promises. There’s an aching sadness to Donnie, rendered powerfully in Casey Affleck’s explosively affecting performance.
While one can intuit some of it stems from a career that never quite took off, being mostly relegated to performing random gigs, the guilt and shame that have been eating away at him comes through in a series of flashbacks, tenderly threaded by Annette Davey. The focus of the narrative is not so much on the flailing struggles of producing music that connects with a prospective audience as it is on the beautifully written and extraordinarily performed angle on the bond between the brothers and their father (Beau Bridges, capturing a lifetime of a father’s love and pride in the most deeply felt scene of the film), who remains the exceptionally supportive bulwark, unfailingly propelling and risking everything, his land, his farm, for enabling his sons’ aspirations.
In a cultural landscape swamped with stories about dysfunctional families ripped apart in bitterness and latent cold wars, there is a unique pleasure in hanging out with this family that is so tightly knit together, with none of the regular flares of animosity and tension that we are so keen to watching between a parent and a child. A glowing Pitchfork review throws the entire family into exultation.
The remastered album creates a greater stir. A New York Times reporter comes down to the family farm to do a story on them. We come to know how their father built a cabin for them to practice once he spotted his sons’ talent and the ardor with which they wished to pursue and hone it. Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer, who play the young Donnie and Joe, are excellent. Grazer and Goggins beautifully complement each other in etching a fine portrait of the brother in the shadows, the ache of being the lesser artist of the two.
The dramatic material here lends itself to abundant sentimentality, but the performances routinely keep it in check, each one combining restraint with an effective holistic sense of characterization. Each pair of actors playing the brothers subtly thread the past, with a controlling Donnie and a withdrawn Joe, and the present as strong guilt starts tailing Donnie, who grapples with all that his actions have sidelined and exacted sacrifices.
Pohlad’s film distinguishes itself from generic melodramas in its understated approach as it weighs at what cost to another person an individual’s pursuit of ambition can come. There’s kindness galore and a profound sense of understanding galore in the brother and the parents. There is no grudging stock of resentments Pohlad is interested in dumping on his viewers, choosing forgiveness and compassion, which might be too syrupy for some people.
Still, one can hardly deny the rich authenticity and warm truth the actors make their characters, endowing them with credibility each step of the way. A later scene between Affleck and Bridges made me sob. The sincerity in Pohlad’s telling keeps us invested in this moving story of perseverance and late-blooming and succeeds in making us care for these lovely, gentle characters.