Not many films hit an emotional crescendo around the publication of a Pitchfork review, but Bill Pohlad’s “Dreamin’ Wild” is sufficiently sincere and embedded in musical nerdery to make it work. As onetime brother act Donnie and Joe Emerson huddle with their family around a 30-years-late evaluation of the album they recorded as teenagers, one particular critical reference sends them giddily reeling: “To twist a Brian Wilson phrase,” it reads, “[the album] is a godlike symphony to teenhood.” For fortysomething Donnie, who has spent his whole adult life scrambling for anyone to listen to his music — let alone love it — the mere mention of his musical hero in relation to his work is a crowning triumph: Donnie, as played by a typically disheveled, downcast Casey Affleck, looks briefly, guardedly happy for a moment, and this often melancholic film is suddenly suffused with well-being.
For those who remember Pohlad’s last film, the fine, deeply felt Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” the name-drop neatly underlines a common thread between Wilson and Emerson, at least as presented on screen: two brilliant, emotionally fragile men, made and undone by their obsessive, possessive devotion to their music, working towards their own kind of peace. The music itself aligns too, with Emerson’s late-‘70s brand of soft rock and blue-eyed soul audibly in thrall to Wilson’s writing and densely layered production style. The difference between them, of course, is that one is an icon and one never came close, making Pohlad’s sweet, slightly sorrowful film the lower-key B-side to his previous one — a poignant examination of what happens when a star is conceived, but not born.
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“Dreams come true in time, occasionally 4/4 time,” reads a title card at the outset of “Dreamin’ Wild” — a quote attributed to nobody, which rather emphasizes its greeting-card quality. It’s a cornball note on which to start a film that mostly proves to be better at avoiding such schmaltzy pitfalls, though it does chime in with the romantic, starry-eyed spirit of the adolescent Donnie (a perfect, mop-topped Noah Jupe), as we open on him idly futzing with a guitar in an isolated timber cabin on his family’s sprawling pine farm in Washington State. He looks up to see an imagined crowd screaming before him, hanging on his every chord, that then evaporates in the starry night. It’s 1979, he’s 17, and the world is his oyster, unless it snaps right shut.
Fast-forward to 2011, and the middle-aged Donnie has moved only as far as the nearest town, where he manages an ailing recording studio with his wife Nancy (an underused Zooey Deschanel), plays cover-band gigs at weddings and bars, and dedicatedly raises a family that gets oddly scant screen time in Pohlad’s script — adapted from a profile by journalist Steven Kurutz. It’s not the life he imagined when he and his older brother Joe (played, in earlier and later life respectively, by Jack Dylan Grazer and Walton Goggins) recorded their scrappy, self-funded and prodigiously sleek album “Dreamin’ Wild” as teens.
It sold a handful of copies locally and piqued the interest of a Hollywood record producer, but never caught on — not until three decades later, that is, when a record collector’s chance discovery of “Dreamin’ Wild” in a thrift shop spurs a word-of-mouth revival, prompting indie label boss Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) to contact the brothers and reissue the album. For Joe, an only modestly talented drummer who long ago shelved any musical aspirations to join his father (Beau Bridges) in the family logging business, this is nothing but a delightful fairytale outcome.
For Donnie, it’s something rather more bittersweet: an unsolicited confrontation with a youthful sensibility that he’s left behind, from which he feels he’s evolved. As the record acquires an underground following and invitations for the brothers to perform flood in, he finds himself uncomfortable slipping into the songs and stage dynamics of the past, while his newfound admirers show no interest in any of his newer work. “I feel like this dream is coming true but the wrong people are in it,” he admits to Nancy, as Pohlad and DP Arnaud Potier — painting in suitably autumnal, warm-but-wilted tones — mark his growing agitation with hectic handheld shooting.
Structurally, editor Annette Davey’s tangled, intuitive criss-crossing of past and present abets a clear kinship between Affleck and Jupe’s performances as Donnie, despite no great resemblance between the two. The actors share a pensive, sometimes far-away air of inner quiet, though Jupe’s calm, straight-backed self-assurance stands in stark contrast to Affleck’s crumpled body language and weary, whispery delivery. Always at his best playing men trying to run up the down escalator, the older actor is achingly moving in the story’s latter stages, as Donnie’s ambitions and anxieties battle each other to an exhausted draw; he has pitch-perfect support, too, from Goggins and Bridges as the men who love him but can’t find his frequency.
These performances hit the honest notes in a screenplay that sometimes labors a little too hard to put Donnie’s unrest into words. We have his lovely, plainly worded songs for that, filling the soundtrack and delivered in the real man’s voice throughout: In particular, the sensuous, satiny soul ballad “Baby” becomes the film’s shifting leitmotif, played in past and present recordings that variously connote unformed teen yearning and a more crackly, wistful middle-aged want. When Affleck gives way to Emerson himself in the closing number, a hopeful, newly written tune about dreams enduring and begetting further dreaming, what could be a cheesy biopic gambit instead feels fully earned: Emerson has waited long enough for the spotlight to come to him, and a little longer still to accept it.
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