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TIFF Review: Wildlife

At times during Wildlife, you have to remind yourself that this is Paul Dano‘s directorial debut.  An actor first, perhaps best known for Prisoners or There Will be Blood amongst others, Dano here has crafted a confident first feature that proves himself as a natural filmmaker.

The film opens on a seemingly idyllic family consisting of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), a former substitute teacher, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), who works at a local golf course and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould).  But when Jerry loses his job and goes off to fight the nearby wildfires for work, Jeanette is suddenly left to fend for herself and her son.  Joe is subsequently thrown right into the complicated world of adult relationships, and learning how to navigate a complicated new reality that his parents are (deeply flawed) people.

Told through the perspective of Joe, the film gains a unique perspective of marriage and family from its young lead.  Oxenbould, who bears a resemblance to a young Dano, is often silent while on screen, but his emotive acting assures that his character comes through with volume.  But it’s Carey Mulligan who puts forth likely one of the best performances of her career – nuanced and subtle at times while able to carry the tension that Jeanette holds within.  Working from a script that was written by Dano, and co-written by Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Mulligan’s performance also adds a somewhat feminist angle, often concentrating on how Jeanette questions her decisions and takes back control of her own life, even to the detriment of those around her.

Wildlife could have been made by a much more seasoned director, but whether Paul Dano learned from his acting time on sets or just had the talent within, it is clear that he has the chops to pull of a good period drama.  His eye is unquestionable, and even in the few moments that the film wavers, or loses momentum, the performances he has encouraged from his actors means you are never distracted for long. If this is the beginning of a directing career, he is off to a great start.

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