‘Dreamin Wild’ Review: Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins Are Faded Rockers Famous at Last

There is such raw tragedy when it comes to artists like Van Gogh or Jonathan Larson, that success and recognition of their genius only came after they died. That fear lies in the heart of so many creative people, that perhaps any success will allude them until it’s too late. “Dreamin Wild” however, is the real life story of something even stranger. That maybe the fates have conspired to eventually give a person their due, but long after it was expected. Based on the real story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, and based on the “Fruitland” article that was published by Steven Kurutz in The New York Times in 2012, “Dreamin Wild” is the tale of two musicians finding success when the 30-year-old record they recorded as teenagers finds a new audience.

Donnie Emerson (Casey Affleck) has never fully given up on his dreams of making it as a musician. He lives, unfulfilled, with his loving musician wife Nancy (a conspicuously glamorous Zooey Deschanel) and three children, struggling to make ends meet with running an underbooked recording studio and gigging as a wedding singer. Joe (Walton Goggins) has long stopped trying to pursue music and lives on the much depleted family farm in a beautiful hand-built cabin, content with his lot in life and proximity to the rest of the Emerson clan, headed up by loving patriarch Don Sr (Beau Bridges). Things are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Matt (Chris Messina), the world’s only non-shady record producer, who has learned of the record through underground buzz. He approaches the Emerson family with an easy proposition: let his label Light In The Attic re-master and re-release their record, no investment required, and hopefully generate the money and acclaim they missed out on as teenagers in the late ’70s.

This is an obvious good deal for the Emersons, and there are few grand stakes at play in the film beyond emotional catharsis and creative fulfillment for the pair. Intrinsically baked into the film is a happy ending, that these characters at some point will become successful enough to warrant a Bill Pohlad-directed movie with a starry cast. So instead its down to Casey Affleck to give us his best quietly-devastated schtick and allow Walton Goggins to be the charm machine he always is. Affleck pulls it off for the most part. Donnie appears as a crumpled piece of paper, so devastated by the myriad disappointments that no amount of good news can smooth him out entirely. Even surrounded by what seems to be a family made up of literal saints, Affleck plays Donnie as a man who hasn’t had a moment of true joy since he was 17. Unfortunately with the five-day stubble he also regularly bears a distractingly uncanny resemblance to one of his older brother’s “Sad Ben Affleck” memes. At one point gazing up at the horizon in despair with such familiarity you can practically see the phoenix tattoo.

The film flips back in between the present rise and the previous fall, when the two boys and their family were convinced of imminent stardom and foolishly put everything on the line to facilitate it. In the present the fences are lined with rusty repossession signs and the once 1700 acre farm of their youth has dwindled down to 75. In the optimistic past Donnie is played by Noah Jupe and and Joe by Jack Dylan Fraser who gorgeously line up with their older counterparts, bringing all 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, as the music he wrote as a teenager manifests in a tangible presence. One of the more intriguing elements is that now, finally getting the recognition he deserves, that the joy of success is so short-lived for Donnie, as he now has to content with the bone-chilling thought that he may have peaked in high school.

There is a gentle loveliness to Pohlad’s filmmaking, everything from sun-swept Eastern Washington State vistas; to teenage parties; to live performance gazed upon adoringly. But there also is a level of “heart-warming” that gradually overheats. Every person in this film is a wonderful human being and even Donnie’s inner turmoil and occasional tantrum is rooted in complete moral goodness. If this family is truly 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, reeks of people recounting stories from their own lives in a way that makes them come across as well as possible. This reaches its apex (or nadir depending on your tolerance for sentimentality) in the final act where the characters meet in various pairings to spell out just what this whole journey has meant to them specifically. Fantastic acting aside, the writing is painful in those scenes, many of the speeches sounding like something that would be read aloud in a particularly earnest intervention.

So while the film reminds us to “dream big”; “never stop dreaming”; “dreams do come true”; “you gotta dream” etc etc, it is hard to continue to take it particularly seriously. The music from the “Dreamin Wild” record itself appears throughout and is undeniably superb (Pitchfork gave it 8/10 and called it “a god-like symphony to teen-hood” we are repeatedly told) but the same problem occurs, by the 10th time you’ve heard the lyrics “I’m gonna make you my baby, make you my baby, make you my baby” a level of numbness to the complex musicality kicks in. However, even at what seems to be the the 47th rendition of the song, and at the film’s most saccharine, it never is entirely lost that the Emerson brothers, particularly Donnie, possess a rare talent. So we might not yet have all our own dreams come true, but watching talent being rewarded and enjoying the warm fuzzy feeling that come from something unashamedly “feel good” isn’t a bad way to pass the time until they do.

Grade: B-

“Dreamin Wild” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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