Watching a true story means that the end result is preordained. When it comes to a musical biopic of sorts, it’s no secret that it works out for the characters we’re following. So, it’s imperative that things feel natural, with the outcome minimally telegraphed. Dreamin’ Wild does an excellent job of this, allowing the real-life story of the Emerson Brothers to never feel like it’s simply going through the motions. At the same time, nothing here is overly Hollywood, making for an effective and tender experience.
Dreamin’ Wild is a low-key musical watch. The strong acting, empathetic filmmaking, and overall vibe make it easy to sink into. There’s a specific rhythm to the film, much like with the musicians here, and the fact that it’s as immersive as it is really helps make the work sing. By the end, it’s almost impossible for this movie not to win you over.
This is the true story of Donnie Emerson (Casey Affleck) and Joe Emerson (Walton Goggins). In the 1970s, teen Donnie (Noah Jupe) and Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer) are budding musical talents, with the former especially seen as something special. Supported by their farmer parents, Don Sr. (Beau Bridges) builds them a recording studio in the woods, allowing them the freedom to create, while urging them to make it count. Their father placed a financial stake in their success, which crippled the business when it didn’t work out. In the present day, Donnie is married to Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), playing music together when they can, and struggling to keep their recording studio afloat. He’s focused on his wife and kids, though the yearning for music remains. Then, a second chance comes knocking.
When record executive Matt Sullivan (Chris Messina) tracks down Joe, he tells the family that their forgotten about album has been rediscovered. A bit of a buzzed about underground band, Matt thinks that the brothers can be successes in the here and now. Joe, Don Sr., and everyone else is excited, but Donnie seems reticent, even though he goes along with it. As they work on new material and prepare to play together again, it becomes clear what’s holding Donnie back, as well as the weight he’s been carrying all these years.
Casey Affleck is as good as ever here, really putting forth the internal turmoil of Donnie. He makes Donnie wholly decent, but also sometimes unsettlingly intense. It all builds to a revelation in the third act that’s incredibly moving. Affleck is always great, but this still is one of his better turns to date. The focus is on Affleck, though Beau Bridges and Walton Goggins do strong work too, especially towards the end. Zooey Deschanel and Chris Messina make the most of smaller parts that could easily have been forgettable. There’s less for Jack Dylan Grazer and Noah Jupe to do, but the enthusiasm for the music is there. Supporting players include Maeve Campbell, Katy Cavanagh-Jupe, McKenna Ralston, and more.
Writer/director Bill Pohlad trafficked in musical territory with his prior feature, Love & Mercy, so this is familiar ground. Still, Pohlad makes sure it doesn’t seem like repetition. The script he penned, as well as his direction, is a bit artier and more indie than that last film, but it’s never esoteric or obtuse. We spend time in our protagonist’s mind, to be sure, but it’s to an emotional end. The movie builds to something moving, that’s undeniable. Plus, Pohlad ends things in an absolutely perfect manner, to say the least.
Dreamin’ Wild is an ode to not letting go of your dreams, no matter how long it takes. With strong acting, tender direction, and some catchy music, it’s no wonder why this eventually worked out for the Emerson Brothers. Watching them see success come around to greet them after too long is pleasurable, even if it’s not necessarily going to blow you away. Sometimes, just a rock solid little flick is just what the doctor ordered.