Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is a fourteen-year-old boy who in the year 1960 has moved to Montana with his parents, and despite the encouragement of his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not making the progress at his new school that he would like to, either socially or in his classes. His dad told him to join the football team, but nobody really talks to him, and he often spends whole matches benched. Jerry has a job at a local golf course for the well-off and makes a point of being friendly and interested in the members - too friendly, as this promptly loses him his job. It is this which triggers a gather crisis in the family, as when Joe's mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) finds out...
Based on a novel by Richard Ford, Wildlife was apparently designed to have people calling it by the wrong name by mistake, as everything in the narrative moved you towards calling it Wildfire, especially when flames were a major aspect of at least two setpieces, and a whole character motivation for one of the leads. But Wildlife it was, a low key for the most part drama set in one of those overfamiliar Middle American settings where the American Dream was not all it was cracked up to be, the nuclear family was about to detonate like the atom bomb, and all sorts of cracks appearing in the ideals that every American was meant to be aspiring towards, circa the past.
Not that this type of effort was relegated exclusively to yesteryear whenever it was made, but filmmakers liked to go back to the source of the problems and divine precisely where it all went wrong. Even back in the nineteen-fifties, when America was supposedly stable, there were hit books and films setting out where the veneer of respectability was splitting open, from bestsellers like Grace Metalious's Peyton Place to the Technicolor soap opera of Douglas Sirk, and you could perceive a debt Wildlife owed to that kind of scenario. That despite the setting being the new decade, but the issues did not evaporate, as we could see they intensified and were added to.
There are no African Americans in this story, no gay people, we don't see anyone who could really be described as a minority, not because actor-turned-director Paul Dano and his co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan were uninterested, more because they were keen to show how the folks who were nominally in charge of this world as the majority were losing their grip. This would eventually allow the hitherto marginalised voices to be increasingly heard, but for now, at the beginning of a tumultuous decade which may see Joe shipped off to war before it ends, the panic begins at home, and Jerry's decision to ignore the golf club's plea to return because they made a mistake, and instead he goes off and fights the, yes, wildfires blazing across the nearby countryside which if unchecked could threaten the homes of everyone in the town.
Little bit of metaphor, there, but Jerry is doing a pretty good job of threatening his own home when Jeanette realises she has married a deadbeat and cannot rely on him anymore, either to look after her or their son, who she had when she was twenty and possibly regrets rushing into motherhood. We see her toying with the idea that she is still an attractive woman, that her flame of desire was extinguished too soon, yet all she gets for romance is the rich, middle-aged businessman (Bill Camp) who is fully prepared to take sexual advantage of her but we're sceptical if she believes any long term benefit can be gained from their dalliance. Mulligan could have struggled here, as Jeanette is a complex character whose true thoughts are only allowed to emerge in the odd line of dialogue or gesture as she puts on a brave face for Joe - who should be paying more attention to the only person in school (Zoe Margaret Colletti) who genuinely likes him. It is only in the very final seconds that we see this family dynamic as it is, and if Jerry and Joe have uncertain feelings, Jeanette is frighteningly vulnerable. It's what you call "quietly powerful", and yes, it was well-trod material, but accomplished acting and sympathy in writing saved it. Music by David Lang.