‘Dreamin’ Wild’ Review: Teenage Dreams Tangle With Adult Realities in Poignant Film

Casey Affleck shines in the true-life story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, who found musical renown decades after recording their own songs in rural Washington.

Casey Affleck and Zooey Deschanel in Dreamin’ Wild. Roadside Attractions

A fact-based film about the life-altering pain of failure, the thrill of belated success, and the challenges inherent in both, Dreamin’ Wild is a testament to a musical family who epitomize the old saying “No matter how long it takes, if you wait long enough, your dream will come true.” Years ago, Donnie and Joe Emerson, the teenage sons of a farmer in Fruitland, Washington, formed a musical duo and recorded an album of their songs, Dreamin’ Wild. Donnie, 15, wrote most of the material, played the guitar and sang, accompanied by his older brother Joe, 17, who played the drums. They wrote and produced the record themselves, pouring their hearts into the project, and nobody liked it. 

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DREAMIN' WILD ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Bill Pohlad
Written by: Bill Pohlad
Starring: Casey Affleck,  Zooey Deschanel, Walton Goggins, Beau Bridges, Noah Jupe, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chris Messina
Running time: 110 mins.

Thirty years later, Joe (Walton Goggins) has given up music for building houses, Donnie (Casey Affleck) and his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel) have fallen on hard times, singing occasional hick-town gigs while struggling to keep their recording-studio business alive and raise two kids of their own, and the Emerson family patriarch Don, Sr. (Beau Bridges) has lost all but a tiny patch of his once-rich farmland.  Miraculously, at their lowest ebb, fate intervenes. A record collector in Montana finds a copy of the old forgotten album Dreamin’ Wild gathering dust in an antique shop and brings it to the attention of a record executive who hears something fresh and full of soul in the songs, labels it “a lost masterpiece,” and wants to re-release it, market it, and turn it into a hit for a whole new generation.

Locating the Emersons after a long, exhausting search, he shocks them with the news, but they sign a contract and the wheels of renewed progress begin to spin. The New York Times sends a writer to the farm in Fruitland to do a profile of the Emerson family, and suddenly they’re plunged into the throes and thrills of fame. Offers pour in with the royalty checks. So do the problems that threaten to destroy their family values. For one thing, Donnie doesn’t feel the same way about the music he once did. Joe hasn’t played the drums in years and now lacks the abilities he had as a teen. The film shifts between time frames, contrasting scenes set in the present and the past, separated by decades, showing the family resentments, differences, and disagreements. The demands for Donnie to go solo form a wedge between brothers the same way they did decades earlier. The sacrifices their dad made to finance their music through the years feeds the guilt the boys feel for the toll it took on his farm when they failed. The internecine family dramas also take their toll on the movie.

Dreamin’ Wild is a slow moving narrative, but I didn’t mind. I admire the way it takes its time to develop character and mood. I also don’t mind admitting this is not my kind of music, but it grows on you. There’s a lot of it, most of it has depth and soul, and Casey Affleck is so well directed and so natural that it really looks like he’s doing the singing himself. (Most of the sound track is actually performed by Don and Joe Emerson, whose 1979 album was given new life in 2012 when the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic reissued it, and in the movie’s final musical segment, the real Donnie, Joe, and Nancy all appear as themselves in a triumphant finale.)

Writer-director Bill Pohlad, best known as the man who produced such prestige pictures as Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years a Slave, also knows his way around a pop chart. (He directed 2014’s Love and Mercy, about the emotional disintegration and eventual redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.) There are also parallels between the Emerson Brothers and the Afflecks. Casey’s career has always been eclipsed by the popularity of his brother Ben, but Dreamin’ Wild again demonstrates the many ways (most ways) Casey is the more talented and versatile of the two. When Donnie learns to reconcile his conflicts and accept his differences with his brother Joe, Casey is genuinely touching. As the less talented but unwaveringly loving older brother Joe, Walton Goggins lends sturdy support and Beau Bridges, my favorite of Lloyd Bridges’s sons, is nothing less than wonderful as the wise, understated head of the Emerson family. A lot of talented people give it their all, in a film that is both thoughtful and rewarding. I liked it a lot.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.


‘Dreamin’ Wild’ Review: Teenage Dreams Tangle With Adult Realities in Poignant Film