There is such raw tragedy when it comes to artists like Van Gogh or Jonathan Larson, with success and recognition of their genius only coming after they died. That fear lies in the heart of so many creative people, but “Dreamin’ Wild” is the real-life story of something even stranger. Based on the real story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, and based on the “Fruitland” article published by Steven Kurutz in The New York Times in 2012, “Dreamin’ Wild” is the tale of two musicians finding success when the 30-year-old record they recorded as teenagers finds a new audience.
Donnie Emerson (Casey Affleck) has never fully given up on his dreams of making it as a musician. He lives, unfulfilled, with his loving musician wife Nancy (a conspicuously glamorous Zooey Deschanel) and two children, struggling to make ends meet with running an under-booked recording studio and gigging as a wedding singer. Joe (Walton Goggins) has long stopped trying to pursue music and lives on the much depleted family farm in a beautiful hand-built cabin, content with his lot in life and proximity to the rest of the Emerson clan, headed up by loving patriarch Don Sr. (Beau Bridges).
Things are thrown into disarray by the arrival of Matt (Chris Messina), the world’s only non-shady record producer, who has learned of the record through underground buzz. He approaches the Emerson family with an easy proposition: Let his label Light In The Attic re-master and re-release their record, no investment required, and hopefully generate the money and acclaim they missed out on as teenagers in the late ’70s.
This is an obvious good deal for the Emersons, and there are few grand stakes at play in the film beyond emotional catharsis and creative fulfillment. Intrinsically baked into the film is a happy ending: At some point these characters will become successful enough to warrant a Bill Pohlad-directed movie with a starry cast. So it’s down to Casey Affleck to give us his best quietly devastated schtick and allow Walton Goggins to be the charm machine he always is.
Affleck pulls it off for the most part. Donnie appears as a crumpled piece of paper, so devastated by the myriad disappointments that no amount of good news can smooth him out entirely. Even surrounded by what seems to be a family made up of literal saints, Affleck plays Donnie as a man who hasn’t had a moment of true joy since he was 17. Unfortunately, with his five-day stubble he also bears a distractingly uncanny resemblance to one of his older brother’s “Sad Ben Affleck” memes. At one point, he gazes up at the horizon in despair with such familiarity you can practically see the phoenix tattoo.
The film flips between their present rise and their past fall, when the two boys and their family were convinced of imminent stardom and foolishly put everything on the line to facilitate it. In the present the fences are lined with rusty repossession signs and the once-1,700 acre farm of their youth has dwindled to 75. In the optimistic past, Donnie is played by Noah Jupe and and Joe by Jack Dylan Fraser. They gorgeously line up with their older counterparts, bringing all the best of Affleck and Goggins’ performances without falling into a broader “sad-sack” vs “affable dude” dynamic.
Some of the best moments come when Jupe and Affleck share the scene, as the music he wrote as a teenager manifests in a tangible presence. One of the more intriguing elements is that now Donnie finally gets the recognition he deserves, the joy of success is so short-lived as he considers the bone-chilling thought that he may have peaked in high school.
There is a gentle loveliness to Pohlad’s filmmaking, everything from sun-swept Eastern Washington State vistas to teenage parties to live performances, but the heartwarming gradually overheats. Every person in this film is a wonderful human being and even Donnie’s inner turmoil and occasional tantrum is rooted in complete moral goodness. If this family is as unimpeachably kind as the film portrays them, then good for them — but much of the characterization, particularly when it comes to Don Jr. and Joe, suggest people who recount stories from their own lives in a way that makes them come across as well as possible.
This reaches its apex (or nadir, depending on your tolerance for sentimentality) in the final act where the characters meet in various pairings to spell out just what this whole journey has meant to each of them. Fantastic acting aside, the writing is painful in those scenes with many speeches sounding like something that would be read aloud during a particularly earnest intervention.
At various points the film reminds us to “dream big,” “never stop dreaming,” “dreams do come true,” and “you gotta dream.” It is hard to continue to take it seriously. The music from the “Dreamin’ Wild” record itself appears throughout and is undeniably superb (Pitchfork gave it 8/10 and called it “a god-like symphony to teen-hood,” we are repeatedly told) but by the 10th time you’ve heard the lyrics “I’m gonna make you my baby, make you my baby, make you my baby,” numbness kicks in.
However, even at what seems to be the the 47th rendition of the song and at the film’s most saccharine, it never is entirely lost that the Emerson brothers, particularly Donnie, possess a rare talent. So we might not yet have all our own dreams come true, but watching talent being rewarded and enjoying the warm fuzzy feeling that come from something unashamedly “feel good” isn’t a bad way to pass the time until they do.
“Dreamin’ Wild” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.