Movie review: ‘Dreamin’ Wild’ is a mournful, ironic character study

What sounds like a standard biopic takes an unexpected turn in Minnesota filmmaker Bill Pohlad’s “Dreamin’ Wild.”

It’s difficult to avoid spoiling the plot of “Wild,” which — like Pohlad’s Brian Wilson drama “Love & Mercy” — is the true story of a creative person who struggles with his art and, especially, life outside of his art.

This time, the protagonist is Donnie Emerson, a Washington farmer who released a bluesy easy-listening album with brother Joe in 1979. Like most pop albums, it went nowhere but, unlike most pop albums, it was rediscovered 30 years later and, reissued, became a cult hit.

That sounds spoiler-ish but it isn’t. The rediscovery happens almost immediately, when a collector (Chris Messina) shows up at the farm where Donnie (Casey Affleck), Joe (Walton Goggins) and their parents (Beau Bridges and Barbara Deering) labor. Soon, the record, “Dreamin’ Wild,” is sellin’ and there are opportunities for Donnie and Joe to perform again, although there’s a complication: Donnie has shifted to occasional gigs with his wife, a keyboard player named Nancy (Zooey Deschanel).

The arc of a musical biopic usually is struggles/success/fame/tragedy but “Dreamin’ Wild” skips right to the tragedy. Flashbacks reveal the guilt and recriminations that tore at the Emerson family when the record was made and that have reverberated through three decades.

Music soundtracks most of “Dreamin’ Wild” — the Emersons’ catchy songs are soft rock that might have been popular a few years earlier, when England Dan and John Ford Coley were cranking out hits — but the movie is really about mental illness and the dangers of obsession.

There’s quite a bit of enabling in the movie, which — like this year’s “You Hurt My Feelings” — tries to get at how families balance unconditional support with reality. Unlike their counterparts in rock biopics “Rocketman” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Emersons have always backed Donnie’s aspirations, but there are questions in “Wild” about whether they’ve given him the kind of sustenance he needs. (Pohlad will introduce the 7:15 p.m. screening Friday at the Main Cinema.)

“Dreamin’ Wild” is a subtle, beautifully acted character study, and it abounds with ironies: Love isn’t enough to “save” people. Talent isn’t enough to ensure success. Doing a good deed can turn out to be the worst thing for everyone involved. It’s not easy to convey those kinds of complexities in just a couple hours of screen time, but Pohlad and company pull it off.

It should be said that there’s not a ton of narrative momentum in “Dreamin’ Wild.” It has an ethereal, elusive quality that’s well-suited to a drama about people who, realizing they’ve made some mistakes, are trying to figure out what comes next.


3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG (for language)

Where to watch: in theaters