Paul Dano’s directorial debut is a quiet, contemplative view of the everyday struggles of Americans in the 60s. In the midst of economic struggle, 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) watches the disintegration of his parent’s marriage while navigating his new life in a small town in Montana. All the while, Montana’s forest fires are a distant, but personal threat that hang over the course of the film. Dano shows tremendous confidence his first time behind the camera. The film is tightly controlled, hitting odd emotional beats that one wouldn’t fathom being able to work until they just do. This is in large part due to the soft nature of the films appearance; muted colors dominate the screen, but nothing looks dour, not even at the height of the emotional distress going on with Joe’s family. Though the film has a slow pace to it, it all feels very intentional.
The story is told through Joe’s perspective, and Oxenbould does a great job in carrying the narrative. Like the film, Joe is quiet, more an observer than active participant. At one point, he gets a job at a photography studio, further exemplifying the fact. It’s clear he loves his parents, but is also not afraid to call them out when moments are rough. Oxenbould has great chemistry with both Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson, though it’s Mulligan he shares most of his scenes with. Mulligan herself is terrific in a role that starts off as stereotypical 60s housewife, but soon transitions into a very feminist take on the role of women in the household. Though her anger at her husband for leaving to fight the wildfire doesn’t quite take the time to properly build, it’s refreshing to watch unfold. Oxenbould and Mulligan are great together, but there are times when they’re conversations don’t feel like they’re happening between mother and son. Certain lines of dialogue ring awkward, but it happens sparingly, so it ultimately doesn’t detract from the rest of the story. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting Gyllenhaal’s presence to be minimal but was pleasantly surprised to find how much of the film he’s in. His earnest portrayal of a down-on-his-luck father and husband led by his pride is interesting and heartfelt.
There are some odd quirks sprinkled throughout the film, but they ended up being the one thing I absolutely loved. Part of Joe’s job at the photography studio is taking portraits of families. We see a lot of families in just this setting, being directed on how they should sit and how they should smile. Some of them are awkward and uncomfortable in front of the camera, while others are obviously happy. It’s a neat way to see into the lives of the other residents of this small town while not following their story. It’s subtle, working beautifully as a small representation of how other families might not be so different from the Brinsons.
The film is based on a short novel by Richard Ford, and adapted for film by Dano and Zoe Kazan. A confident starting point for Dano’s directorial career, it will leave you looking forward for more of his sure to be eclectic career behind the camera.
This is a reprint from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.