Film Review: Dreamin’ Wild
Director: Bill Pohland
River Road Entertainment
In Theaters 08.04.2023
Dreamin’ Wild is a unique entry in the musician biopic genre in that it’s not just about telling a story we haven’t heard before; it introduces us to a real band that we only wish we’d known about before now.
Dreamin’ Wild stars Oscar winner Casey Affleck as Donnie Emerson, a singer/songwriter in Fruitland, Washington, pushing 50 and resigned to the fact that his chance at stardom passed him by long ago. In the ’70s, musical prodigy Donnie and his brother, Joe (Walton Goggins, Lincoln, The Hateful Eight) recorded an album, Dreamin’ Wild, in the small recording studio that their father, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges, Night Crossing, One Night in Miami…) built on his own farmland, sparing no expense in giving his sons their big shot. The eclectic mix of R&B, country and funk never managed to find an audience, however, and the debits kept piling up.
In 2011, a music promoter named Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina, Air) shows up to tell the Emersons that Dreamin’ Wild has become a much sought-after album with a cult following (the Emersons don’t have internet) and is being hailed by music critics as a minor masterpiece. Matt offers them the chance to release it to a wide audience, and while this second cheaters a lot of excitement, it also causes long-buried emotions to resurface, as Donnie, Joe and their family try to reconcile the past and their newfound fame.
Writer/director Bill Pohland (Love & Mercy) has a deep love for music that shines through in every moment of Dream’ Wild, infusing the true story of the Emersons with excitement and energy while staying true to the quiet small town setting. The camera work is slick while avoiding being flashy, and Pohland avoids big montage sequences and other staples of the genre in favor of quiet, introspective moments that get us to know and love these characters. There’s no shortage of warm sentimentality, though Pohland keeps it from becoming too maudlin or too melodramatic by giving us honest moments rather than running down a checklist of the standard scenes we expect to see in a musical, feel-good movie.
Affleck gives by far his best performance since Manchester By the Sea, as Donnnie balances his own resentment with the weight of the guilt he feels at the money his father lost trying to make him a star, as well as fears that he’s going to go through the same disappointments all over again. While Affleck’s singing is all lip synched to the real Donnie’s vocals, he makes us feel like it’s coming from his soul, and it’s easy enough to just go with it. The truly great performance comes from Goggins, who deserves to finally enter Oscar territory himself for his moving portrayal of the awkward, less talented yet always supportive, older brother who spends his life in the shadow of his dynamic younger sibling. Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!) are terrific in flashbacks as the teen versions of Donnie and Joe, respectively, and there’s a fusion between the four performances that gives Dreamin’ Wild its smooth rhythm that makes it special. Bridges has some wonderful and tender moments, and even Zooey Deschanel (New Girl, Elf) is a bit underused as Nancy, Donnie’s wife, her captivating presence lifting up any film that she’s in, especially when we get a chance to hear her sing.
Dreamin’ Wild is a thoughtfully introspective little film that inspires and provokes plenty of emotions, and much like the album that inspired it, it’s the buried treasure of the summer movie season and deserves to be sought out and experienced. If you’ve ever chased a dream, been discouraged by life or struggled to tell your family what they mean to you … really, if you’ve even been alive, Dreamin’ Wild is one musical true story that is bound to strike a chord. –Patrick Gibbs