Dreamin' Wild

Dreamin' Wild is such an unusual musical biopic that it took me a while to realize how much I liked it. Unlike Elvis, Rocketman, and Respect, which dramatize the lives of household name performers, this film focuses on Donnie and Joe Emerson, an obscure sibling act that got an unexpected second chance decades after flopping with their one and only album. Rather than telling their story in a linear manner, director Bill Pohlad (Love and Mercy) intertwines a storyline set in 2011 with one showing significant moments from the men’s childhood. Once you get on its wavelength, the movie is touching in ways you don’t see coming.

Casey Affleck plays Donnie as an adult, and Walton Goggins is Joe. (They're played by Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer in flashbacks). He runs a failing recording studio with wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel) and makes ends meet playing in a wedding band. He and Joe receive a visit from Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina), the co-owner of a record label that finds overlooked artists to revitalize. He's discovered the album Donnie and Joe made as teens - the one funded by their father (Beau Bridges) - and wants to re-release it. They're gobsmacked, as the record didn't sell, immediately ending their careers.

The reissue turns out to be a viral hit. Matt wants the brothers to play a few reunion shows. That's when trouble begins. Donnie was clearly the visionary of the group, writing their songs and playing most of the instruments. Joe was, and is, a mediocre drummer, at best. Drama arises from Donnie seeing a chance to finally fulfill his dream while being inextricably tied to the brother who views their newfound success as a lark.

Dreamin’ Wild is not about a forgotten act’s sudden popularity. That element is here to back up a story about brothers. The movie explores sacrifices the characters have made for one another, the issues that come into play because one is the far more talented musician, and the clash between how they view their resurgence. Pohlad drives that home by mixing past and present. Aside from the flashbacks, there are moments where Donnie stands near his younger self, watching his interactions with Joe. Later, adult and teenage Donnie sit beside each other, even exchanging a look. The whole point is to blur the narrative to show how events from the past continue to impact the relationship in the present.

Casey Affleck might be slightly miscast here with his minimalist acting style, yet he still sells the necessary emotions. The actor shows us the wheels perpetually turning in Donnie’s head. His best scene allows him to explode after a concert gig doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s powerful because Affleck has given Donnie a bottled-up quality, so when he finally pops, his anger is revelatory. Walton Goggins does typically excellent work as Joe, infusing him with a soulful sad-sack personality. You can feel this guy’s pain.

Female characters get short shrift in Dreamin’ Wild. Nancy is here as a one-dimensional support for Donnie, just as the siblings’ mother Selina (Barbara Deering) is a one-dimensional support for Don Sr. The movie would have been stronger if they had more to do. Otherwise, the story meaningfully depicts how Donnie and Joe find ways to strengthen their bond during a time when it’s severely tested. Whether or not you’re familiar with the Emersons’ music, the film works as an exploration of family dynamics.

out of four

Dreamin' Wild is rated PG for language and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.