[NOTE: Film originally viewed as a selection of the 2023 Seattle International Film Festival]
Working in local radio will almost always lead to the infectious idea of discovering new music in the least expected of places. Be it on the job, at a concert, or by recommendation by coworkers in one’s spare time. Less frequently, a third category springs up: Finding a hidden gem on personal exploration, whether purposeful or by accident. Great music can be like that sometimes, finding its audience on a delayed or unconventional basis. And the way it passes around can often be as surprising as meeting the artists in their present light. In Dreamin’ Wild, writer/director Bill Pohlad (Love and Mercy) recognizes the proponent stigma of embracing the ignored or overlooked, recognizing why it’s often better to keep it that way.
For Donnie and Joe Emerson (Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer), musical artistry was in their blood from a young age. But try telling that to their older selves. Growing up as 70s kids in the remote farming town of Fruitland, roughly 70 miles northwest of Spokane, they were loyal to the dirt they were helping to cultivate along with dad Don Sr. (Beau Bridges). He helped foster that creativity in his sons, buying them instruments, investing in a small recording studio on property, and guiding them into composing their songs, more than enough for a self-released debut album that sold quite modestly but went vastly ignored by listeners outside of Eastern Washington.
Rather a shame, as the album Dreamin’ Wild did have an eclectic mix of styles which the Emersons would experiment with in their writing. 35 years pass, and by sheer surprise, it’s found its tribe, the first printing passed down along private collectors, flea market curators, and anthropology majors. The latter is perhaps the most surprising out of Steven Kuritz’s feature article, which Pohlad adapts from for his script. The thing that attracted them all is the album’s affinity in the sphere of “lo-fi” listening. And in this adaptation, that’s enough to garner the attention of Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), head of a private-press record label, who visits Fruitland to interview the Emersons, without going right to a “where are they now?” motif.
Pohlad is certainly smarter than attempting a Behind the Music type approach to his screenplays, Love and Mercy proved that in spades. Dreamin’ Wild is effectively the former’s B-side, the often less circulated piece of virtuosity, living well in the present without eclipsing past efforts. Modern-day Joe (Walton Goggins) is all too comfortable with that idea, having stayed on the farm to keep it afloat after years of financial burden. Meanwhile, Donnie (Casey Affleck) has maintained a much quieter pulse in the music industry, playing clubs and weddings with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel) to make ends meet while operating a small Spokane recording studio. It’s through Matt’s efforts as both an A&R specialist and a fan that push the two brothers back into trying their hand at recording and performing again, re-releasing their first album for a more accepting market, and preparing for an issue of new material. Or more accurately, songs of experience from back in the day left behind.
Therein lies an interesting crossroads both past and present share between Donnie and Joe. The further they intertwine, the more fun Pohlad is having fun delving further into the analysis of his key subjects. In the past, there’s Donnie, the fervent creative, the one responsible for many of the songs and determined to achieve stardom. Not aware, of course, he’s inadvertently missing his best teenage years, and not heeding the likely cynicism of industry professionals. In the present there’s Joe, allegiant to his family home, but uncertain of his place in the band. He’s merely happy to rejoin as a hobby, but not to the point of being broken by perfectionism.
Gluing the two perspectives is Don Sr, an unwavering pillar of resolve and understanding, never shooting down their kids’ dreams while also keeping the peace and all feet firm to the ground. The singing duo see at different times gratitude, faithfulness, and regret toward their doting dad. Even with all the expenses lost, literally betting the farm, his fondness in return is nothing short of spectacular. And even if there are moments where that indifference and apprehension in achieving such concise musicianship in a peak time tend to run in circles, Pohlad never wastes the moment, further capturing those specific emotions in a transparent guise. One preserved concerning the times and places, the director and cinematographer Arnaud Potier shooting to their hearts’ content around Spokane, with one sequence at Seattle’s Showbox.
And that much is a complete testament to both pairs of brothers, committing all manner of confidence, discernment, and counterbalance toward each other. Affleck possesses a wearisome head-in-the-clouds frustration emanating from a jagged core of showmanship. Whereas Goggins is a bit more humane, tethered, warm-blooded, and ready to extend an open hand. Jupe and Grazer run on about the same path, the former easily skating past his sibling, and occasionally his grownup counterpart with ardent zeal. Bridges and Messina are also in peak form, the latter still enjoying a banner year. And Deschanel enjoys a strong moment or two to invoke motherly instinct and wisdom, even if she and Sr’s wife Salina (Barbara Deering) are left perhaps a pinch underwritten.
Pohlad’s angle to this story firmly proves itself as enriching as the musical masterwork and long-form article it was based off on. Lyrics, scripted words, and on-screen actions suddenly appear like one and the same to encapsulate a trial of the heart, and the real price of setbacks. Even when lost in its sonic dreamscape – their pivotal slow dance tune “Baby” covers that niche with lyrical comfort – the mood never spins off-groove. Dreamin’ Wild is the kind of cinematic romp celebrating dreams unfulfilled and the welcome chance at a do-over. All while respecting the value of a strong support system, no matter which direction the chips fall. In the Emersons’ case, win or lose, the composition to follow would still be a cult gem. (B+; 3.5/5)
Dreamin’ Wild is currently playing in select theaters throughout Seattle, rated PG for language and thematic elements; 110 minutes.