Saturday, August 4, 2018


1960. Young family the Brinsons, Jerry Jeanette and young Joe, move into a small Montana town following Jerry's next job, a country club gopher/groundskeeper. He's well liked by the club's guests but his boss catches him fraternising a little too closely for comfort (Jerry has joined a bet with two of them) and he's fired. Jeanette is restless and needs something to do beyond the housewife role. Joe is slow to fit in at school and isn't enthusiastic about having to be in the football team. Things tighten in the house as Jerry keeps drawing blanks at job hunting. There are fires in the nearby mountains and they are approaching. Finally, Jerry signs on as part of the firefighting team and leaves town. Jeanette, already on edge, gets a job as a swimming instructor where she takes one client's progress and attentions too far and has an affair. All this is watched with increasing frustration by Joe who tries like an antibody to shape himself around the increasingly dark and disappointing acts of grownups.

So, it's Joe's story. He gets the fewest lines but his huge absorbent gaze fills him with the world and his powerlessness to change it. This is also a story of waiting. The fires hang low over the town's daily thoughts. Perhaps they'll be quenched by the coming winter's snow or rage beyond human control and raze the town and all of its venal and venereal squalor. Jeanette takes Joe on a trip to the fire front and he looks at a burning hillside in awe that might be fear of the devastation or a plea for it to get on with it.

The literary film is as old as cinema and this one joins a long and ragged line, with outstanding literal examples like The Tin Drum or bizarre companion pieces like Naked Lunch. Between those two points there are many, many, many growing up stories and most of them are slow and affectless. A very few like To Kill A Mockingbird hit bullseye targets with every scene and carry the weight of a great read. Wildlife almost makes it to the border of Mockingbird country.

Ed Oxenbould's Joe has an arc that occurs entirely in his head. It's his understanding of what he sees and his binding dependence we see pushing him to acts of escape. Dano has wisely chosen against the device of narration, choosing instead to let the young actor establish a dialogue with the audience. Considering how tightly he frames the actors in this film of characters that's a big job but Oxenbould brings it home. Then, when you have the strength of Carrie Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal to create the torment and strain, young Ed had better make sure his face is readable. Not a moment of performance feels wrong here.

That's the next thing. This is the directorial debut of an actor. These can work ( Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter) or they can be over performative (Robert Duvall's The Apostle) or they can be a showcase for every movie trick in the book to show how cinematic the actor really is (George Clooney's abysmal Suburbicon). Wildlife mercifully introduces and maintains a straightforward plainness of style, admitting the great beauty of the plain and mountain setting but really concentrating on the interplay of performances in settings. A pity then that the repetitive nature of much of the narrative results in an outstayed welcome, a film whose power is left to fend for itself against a dourness unrelieved by humour. Its hundred and four minutes felt like two hours or more.

Screening Notes: Once again into the magnificence of the Regent Theatre for the second (and final) time this fest. The queue curled just around Russell St but was moving so briskly by the time I reached it that I as well joined it as walk beside it. I found a front and centre seat easily with no one behind me and only one other on the row. Ed Oxenbould was present and introduced the film and took questions for twenty minutes afterwards, revealing some fun facts and interesting choices by Dano (who, rightly cut all scenes of Jerry at the fire, allowing the sense of waitingmore strength) and proved himself an admirably articulate and effortlessly charming seventeen year old (God, that makes me sound ancient but it comes from my own memory of being that age). What had been a shining and cool morning had become a steel grey, damp and freezing afternoon. Well, Melbourne, winter, MIFF :)

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