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Dreamin’ Wild Movie Review: Casey Affleck Gives Career-Best Performance in Moving Biopic

Dreamin' Wild is one of the most emotionally powerful movies of the year, with Casey Affleck delivering the performance of his career.
Dreamin' Wild starring Casey Affleck

You may not have heard of Donnie Emerson, but Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild will make sure you’ll never forget him. Based on journalist Steven Kurutz’s “Fruitland” article in The New York Times, the movie stars Casey Affleck and Walton Goggins as Donnie and Joe Emerson. In 1979, the two released an album called Dreamin’ Wild as teenagers (Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer play the younger versions of the character). The album went on unnoticed until, in 2011, a music producer (Chris Messina) discovered it and wanted to show the world how bold and ahead of its time it was.

Dreamin' Wild

A tour is planned, alongside a re-release of the album with a brand-new remaster, which excites the family, particularly Donnie’s father (Beau Bridges) and wife (Zooey Deschanel). However, Donnie doesn’t seem thrilled about revisiting Dreamin’ Wild, as it floods back dark memories from his childhood, where his family waged everything on his signing talents, bringing nothing back in return. The tour will now allow Donnie to grapple with his faith and the connection he holds dear to the music that shaped his life.

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Dreamin’ Wild Daringly Breaks with Narrative Form & Convention

Polhad could’ve represented Emerson’s journey in a rather conventional way, and he does set the stage for the story through a natural and by-the-numbers progression. But it’s after Messina shows up the movie takes a different nature and becomes something else entirely. Dreamin’ Wild isn’t the simple story of how the Emerson brothers got known, but how Donnie accepted his art as part of himself, as he’s been desperately trying to distance himself from it. Polhad does this through sharp match-cuts alternating between the past and present, sometimes putting Affleck and Jupe (through a reflection until he becomes whole) in the same frame and sequence.

Dreamin' Wild

The visual language is sometimes erratic and imperfect, but that’s precisely how Donnie feels when he gets an unexpected visit from someone who promises he’ll change his life. We don’t quite understand why the movie is structured that way initially. Lingering shots of natural landscapes discombobulate what seems to be a traditional movie until it starts to adopt cinéma vérité techniques during its middle section to become surrealistic as Donnie gets closer to the younger version of himself.

However, once we learn more about him and his past, it becomes clear that Polhad’s structure is reflective, and he isn’t afraid to break conventions through editing and ever-changing visual style. Sure, he seems to borrow heavily from two recent biopics (Elvis and Oppenheimer, the latter also starring Affleck), especially if you’ve seen them. However, the style is entirely different from both films, enhancing each ounce of the audience’s emotional journey with Donnie and his brother.

Casey Affleck Gives a Performance of Incredible Compassion and Depth

Dreamin' Wild

As Donnie, Affleck gives a performance of great compassion and emotional complexity, portraying the singer/songwriter with incredible amounts of depth. It’s perhaps the best role of his career, even better than his Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea. The way he juggles so many emotions through his eyes and minimalist expressions show how damaged he is inside far better than any sappy snot-bubbling sequence in Kenneth Lonergan’s film, especially when he goes on stage for the first time in over thirty years with his brother.

While Jupe and Grazer aren’t as strong as Affleck and Goggins, and the movie doesn’t take as much time to develop this part of the story as the “present-day” Donnie, they perfectly juxtapose who Donnie and Joe are now, and beautifully represent how the two characters will evolve as time goes by. Each character, while they don’t get equal screentime, is fully-formed and as complex as they can be with the constraints Polhad works with. Yes, the film mostly focuses on Donnie, but his father and brother are as equally important to the journey as the protagonist. 

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The film’s trailer teased a conversation between past Donnie and present Donnie, but the sequence becomes something far better than I would’ve ever imagined. I won’t dare spoil it, but in this particular series of conversations blossoms one of the most powerful father/son conversations I’d seen on film in so long, with Beau Bridges giving one of the best monologues of the entire year.

I know everyone’s fixated on Past Lives, and justifiably so, with its use of silence and facial expressions to convey as many emotions as possible, but Dreamin’ Wild’s final moments are as astounding as in Celine Song’s film. They’re of course not the same, but you’ll quickly begin to swell up as Polhad and editor Annette Davey cut from the fictionalized Donnie to the real-life one, as he sings “When a Dream is Beautiful.”

That’s when the core of the film becomes clear. It’s not just about the music, even if it has been a part of Donnie’s life for so long, but about reconnecting with himself and his family, whom he thought he disappointed and left them to fend for themselves. By the end of Dreamin’ Wild, Donnie not only restores his faith in himself and his brother but sees how much his music and art have shaped so many people he didn’t realize existed. In a way, the music had always shaped who he was as a teenager, and who he is now. But he didn’t see it until then…

4.5/5

Dreamin’ Wild is now playing in select theatres. What are your thoughts on the film? Have you heard of Donnie Emerson before the movie? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to follow us on social media!

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Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent

Maxance is a freelance film and TV writer, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the University of Montreal, with a specialization in Video Game Studies.