Dreamin’ Wild (2023)

‘Dreamin’ Wild’ hits all the right notes

Say you have a dream, investing everything you have, both emotionally and financially. Then, it fails miserably. But wait. Thirty years later, it’s out-of-the-blue realized. Pure bliss, right? Wrong! That’s the careful-what-you-wish-for lesson lurking within “Dreamin’ Wild,” a most unconventional tale of a tortured music artist whose long-deferred fame rocked the world but nearly wrecked his soul.

As he did with “Love and Mercy,” his sensational profile of another tormented genius in Brian Wilson, writer-director Bill Pohlad demonstrates that fame and talent aren’t always in harmony. And similar to Wilson, the stress of success can rip at the threads binding brothers and a father and son, transforming a burgeoning dream into a haunting nightmare. That’s precisely what happened to Donnie Emerson, a genuine farm boy from Fruitland, Washington, with an innate talent for bearing his soul in song. At the ripe old age of 16!

Along with his 18-year-old brother, Joe, the siblings wrote, performed and mixed an entire album in a shed their father, Don – in a giant leap of faith – risked everything to build. He went even further by becoming the sole manufacturer and distributor of the album aptly titled “Dreamin’ Wild.” Foolhardy, right? You bet. And it backfired spectacularly, until… Well, allow Pohlad to take it from there, using a 2012 New York Times article by Steven Kurutz as his guide, and a staggering performance by Casey Affleck as his North Star.

Although he doesn’t perform his own vocals, Affleck does everything else as the woebegone Donnie, a defeated man in his 40s clinging to fading visions of glory. In many ways, Donnie exhibits the same remorse and regret as the broken and disillusioned Lee Chandler, the role Affleck rode to universal acclaim in “Manchester by the Sea.” At times, the burdens of the past register so convincing that you feel the weight on your own shoulders. And no one is better at imparting such anguish than Affleck, whose perpetual hangdog expression virtually begs you to hug him. That is if you dare. For he also emits an intimidating air of “Don’t screw with me.”

We feel it, as does his family: Pops (a relentlessly sweet Beau Bridges); Donnie’s wife and singing partner, Nancy (an underused Zooey Deschanel); and his mousy brother, Joe (a nicely understated Walton Goggins), whose deep respect for Donnie is rarely returned in kind. In Affleck’s capable hands, there’s no doubting Donnie’s growing envy of Joe’s contentment as a man of few means and even fewer needs. It’s as if he’s constantly asking himself, “Why can’t I be that happy and carefree?”

It’s the same when Donnie is around his dad, who is every bit as unfettered as Joe, even though he’s sacrificed most of his farm attempting to facilitate his son’s one-in-a-million shot at stardom. I can’t imagine the guilt, but Affleck does and expresses it stridently in sudden passive-aggressive blowups, mostly directed at Joe, and sometimes, Nancy. It only gets worse when a record company rep (Chris Messina) shows up on the family’s farm bearing tidings of long-forgotten wishes fulfilled. It seems a collector of rare, self-produced albums has just discovered “Dreamin’ Wild” three decades after the fact. And he is sharing his love for its blend of blues and blue-eyed soul on his blog, a post that inspires one reader to liken the record to Brian Wilson’s “Teenage Symphonies to God.”

The family is ecstatic. Well, oddly, everyone except Donnie. Why? Here’s where Pohlad’s screenplay soars, as he gets deep into the psyche of Donnie and his internal conflicts over the artist he is and the artist he was. And, much to his disdain, it’s the latter the world is demanding. It’s like asking Picasso to return to his Blue Period while in the midst of creating his Cubist masterpieces. It’s an existential crisis at its most basic. And Affleck does wonders with it.

It’s a performance that is wrenching, at times bordering on off-putting, with Affleck often taking Donnie’s self-loathing to the edge. It’s also an extreme contrast to the sweet and adorable Noah Jupe as the 16-year-old Donnie, a curly haired moppet of intense ambition and unencumbered dreams of fame, traits fully shared in a series of flashbacks by a young Joe (Jack Dylan Glazer), whose only contributions are his crude drumming and occasional vocals.

From the start, Glazer (“Luka”) is deft at depicting Joe’s intense need to hang on his younger brother’s coattails. But it’s when Goggins takes over as the middle-aged Joe that your heart truly breaks. I don’t recall witnessing Goggins this subdued, this nuanced. He is a revelation, drawing the stark contrast between Joe’s love of unexpected fame and the deer-in-the-headlights reaction by an increasingly traumatized Donnie. He doesn’t resemble Affleck in the least, but Goggins is more than convincing as the brother resigned to remaining in the background, both on stage and in life.

The film’s best moment comes near the end when the two Dons sit down for a revealing father-and-son chat about the importance of a family believing in each other, no matter the cost. Bridges mostly just sits in the shadows as Affleck delivers the film’s defining soliloquy. But through his posture and expressions, Bridges ideally communicates the level of despair over his son’s unhappiness. It’s subtly impactful, as is the entire film.

Coupled with “Love and Glory,” “Dreamin’ Wild” solidifies Pohlad as the go-to guy for rock bio-pics. His films lack the flash and high production value of an “Elvis” or “Rocket Man.” But what’s lacking in glitz, is overcome by his ability to render a legend wholly relatable to our own everyday struggles. Unlike Donnie, most of us will never achieve cult-hero status, but in the eyes of those who love us, we can become every bit as iconic.

Movie review

Dreamin’ Wild

Rated: PG for language and thematic elements

Cast: Casey Affleck, Walton Goggins, Beau Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Messina, Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Glazer

Director: Bill Pohlad

Writer: Bill Pohlad

Runtime: 110 minutes

Grade: A-

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