Dreamin’ Wild review: Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins play rockers

Venice: As teenagers, the Emerson brothers thought they were on the verge of stardom. But Pitchfork’s fame and recognition didn’t come until decades later.

There is such raw tragedy when it comes to artists like Van Gogh or Jonathan Larson whose success and recognition of their genius comes only after their deaths. That fear is at the heart of so many creative people, but Dreamin’ Wild is the true story of something even stranger. Based on the true story of Donnie and Joe Emerson and based on the “Fruitland” article published by Steven Kurutz in The New York Times in 2012, “Dreamin’ Wild” is the story of two musicians who find success as the 30-year-old record they recorded as teenagers finds a new audience.

Donnie Emerson (Casey Affleck) never quite gave up on his dreams of making it as a musician. Living unfulfilled with his loving musician Nancy (a strikingly glamorous Zooey Deschanel) and three children, he struggles to make ends meet by running an understaffed recording studio and performing as a wedding singer. Joe (Walton Goggins) has long since stopped making music and lives on the badly depleted family farm in a beautiful hand-built cabin, content with his lot in life and closeness to the rest of the Emerson clan, led by the loving patriarch Don Sr. (Beau Bridges).

Things get mixed up with the arrival of Matt (Chris Messina), the only non-shady record producer in the world who found out about the record through underground hype. He approaches the Emerson family with a simple proposition: let his label, Light In The Attic, remaster and re-release their record with no investment required, and hopefully generate the money and acclaim they got as teenagers in their late teens missed in the 70s.

This is an obviously good deal for the Emersons, and there are few major stakes in the film that go beyond emotional catharsis and creative fulfillment. Inherently burned into the film is a happy ending: eventually these characters become successful enough to warrant a star-cast Bill Pohlad-directed film. So it’s up to Casey Affleck to give us his best quietly devastated schtick and allow Walton Goggins to be the magic machine he always is.

Affleck pulls it off for the most part. Donnie appears as a crumpled piece of paper, so devastated by countless disappointments that no amount of good news can calm him completely. Surrounded himself by a family made up of literal saints, Affleck plays Donnie as a man who hasn’t had a moment of real joy since he was 17. Unfortunately, with his five-day beard, he also bears a distracting eeriness resemblance to one of his older brother’s “Sad Ben Affleck” memes. At one point, he looks desperately to the horizon with such familiarity that you can practically see the phoenix tattoo.

The film alternates between their current rise and their past decline as the two boys and their family were convinced of the stardom to come and foolishly risked everything to make it happen. In the present, the fences are lined with rusty take-back signs and the once 700-acre farm of her youth has shrunk to 75. In the upbeat past, Donnie is played by Noah Jupe and Joe is played by Jack Dylan Fraser. They tie in beautifully with their older peers, bringing the best of Affleck and Goggins’ performances without falling into a broader “sad sack” vs. “affable dude” dynamic.

Some of the best moments come when Jupe and Affleck share the scene, when the music he wrote as a teenager manifests itself in a tangible presence. One of the more intriguing elements is that now Donnie is finally getting the recognition he deserves, the joy of success is so short-lived when he thinks of the chilling thought that he might have peaked in high school.

There’s a gentle loveliness to Pohlad’s filmmaking, from sun-drenched vistas of eastern Washington state to teenage parties to live performances, but the heartwarming begins to overheat. Every person in this film is a wonderful human being, and even Donnie’s inner turmoil and occasional tantrum are rooted in utter moral goodness. If this family is as unimpeachably kind as the film portrays them, then good for them — but much of the characterization, particularly when it comes to Don Jr. and Joe, suggests people who share stories from their own lives in a way tell what makes them come across as well as possible.

This reaches its climax (or nadir, depending on your tolerance for sentimentality) in the final act, where the characters meet in various pairings to express exactly what this whole journey has meant to each of them. Fantastic acting aside, writing in these scenes is painful as many of the speeches sound like something that would be read aloud during a particularly serious intervention.

At various points the film reminds us to “have big dreams”, “never stop dreaming”, “dreams come true” and “you must dream”. It’s hard to keep taking it seriously. The music from the Dreamin’ Wild record itself appears throughout and is undeniably superb (Pitchfork gave it an 8/10 and called it “a godlike symphony for teenagers,” we’re repeatedly told), but by the 10th time it’s you I heard the lyrics “I’m gonna make you my baby, make you my baby, make you my baby”.

But even on what appears to be the song’s 47th performance and the film’s sweetest, it never quite goes away that the Emerson brothers, especially Donnie, possess a rare talent. We may not all have made our own dreams come true just yet, but watching talent be rewarded and enjoying the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from something that outrageously “feels good” isn’t a bad way to celebrate the Passing time until they do.

grade B-

Dreamin’ Wild premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently looking for distribution.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/dreamin-wild-review-casey-affleck-walton-goggins-1234759598/ Dreamin’ Wild review: Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins play rockers

Lindsay Lowe

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