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Dreamin’ Wild: Film Review

Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild is a film about second chances that sounds great, looks great, packs an emotional punch and is imbued with love and warmth.

‘Shoot for the stars’. ‘Follow your dreams’. ‘Believe and you can achieve’. Platitudes like these are rolled out time and time again when one pursues a passion. But sadly sometimes those stars are too out of reach, believing isn’t enough and the dreams don’t come true. Life isn’t always how we envision it, and sometimes we can relegate something to the past and let it gather dust and be forgotten.

It’s at that starting point Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild begins, with a teenage Donnie Emerson (Noah Jupe) dreaming of musical stardom. The empty expanse of his family farm becomes a crowd of cheering fans as he plays guitar and sings the songs he writes in the middle of the night. Alas though, that dream wasn’t to be, and 30 years later a middle-aged Don (Casey Affleck) drives his kids to school in a minivan and runs a struggling music studio with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel). But then a phone call from his brother Joe (Walton Goggins) changes his life.

Based on a New York Times article by Steven Kurutz, the story of the Emerson brothers is an… odd one. As teenagers, they recorded an album in a converted barn at their family farm in Fruitland, Washington. Nothing much came of it, nor of Donnie’s musical talent and ambitions, until someone happened upon the record and put it online decades later. It led to a resurgence, a new appreciation for the songs Donnie wrote and recorded in that secluded cabin, poured his heart and soul into alongside his older brother.

In Dreamin’ Wild, when record exec. Matt (Chris Messina) shows up to the family farm, Don is a bit reluctant to buy into the excitement. Music is everything to him, and his artistic nature has him chaffing at the constant reminders of the past. Joe and their dad Don Sr. (Beau Bridges) welcome the royalties that slowly start coming in as the album is remastered and starts selling again; the farm financed the making of the album and Donnie’s musical dreams, but the lack of pay off has seen them struggling. When a comeback show is scheduled, which could lead to a tour and possibly the making of new music, Don has to wrestle with his guilt and anger over having ‘failed’ before and confront the reality of his dream not coming true, and what that meant and means for him and his family.

Dreamin’ Wild
Dreamin’ Wild (River Road Entertainment | Roadside Attractions, 2022 Venice Film Festival)

Pohlad’s film is an absolute gem. It’s moving and raw and the emotion pours from the screen. It’s so easy to see the love Don, Joe and the whole Emerson family has for each other, along with Don’s passion for music and Joe’s love for his brother. Affleck is reserved up until he isn’t, and his releasing of decades worth of frustration and hurt and, frankly, embarrassment, comes to the surface in one of the film’s most effective scenes. Jupe doesn’t get to do much aside from make the music, but it’s clear that he lives for the process. Goggins – and in turn Jack Dylan Grazer as the younger ‘Joe’ – appears much more jovial about the whole thing; he knew he was never going to be a rock star and accepted that fact a long time ago. But its his love for his family that really shines through, the weight of the sacrifices they made for Donnie has settled into a worn warmth, and while he doesn’t get as much of a chance to express himself as Affleck’s Don does, it’s so palpable and he’s a joy to watch on screen. Deschanel is affective but somewhat underused as Don’s wife Nancy, although it is ultimately the story of the album Joe and Don made, and so shifting the focus away from them too much might have weighed the film down slightly.

Dreamin’ Wild is a film about exactly that sentiment – dream wild and hard and as much as you can –, but also about the reality of its unlikeliness. It’s a film about the sacrifices those around us, those who love, respect and care about us, make so that we can realise our own dreams. It’s about the importance of family and how festering resentment, anger, pain, shame and guilt over things not working out don’t lead to anywhere good. Instead, they dilute the joy we can find in the things around us that have. Yes we’re meant to shoot for the stars, but this isn’t always an achievable goal, and sometimes we land back on the ground and that’s okay.

Soundtracked by Don Emerson himself, the film sounds great. The music is a mix of funk, rock and pop, and there’s a soulfulness to it that really emphasises the love poured into both the album and the film. Dreamin’ Wild is a film about second chances, the form they take and the manner in which we embrace them. It’s also a film about how appreciating something is timeless; there will always be an audience for your art, and while it might not be very big or you might have to wait for it, it’s worth it.

Making music, and filmmaking, are something to be done out of love, the result of hard work and a passion for it. Dreamin’ Wild feels like an encapsulation of both, and of the significance the people behind the dreamer have on the end result. Don and Joe’s album flourished eventually, but Dreamin’ Wild won’t have to wait that long to be appreciated. It’s a heartfelt, joyful, emotional film that looks and sounds great. It definitely deserves to be appreciated now and in the decades to come.

Dreamin’ Wild premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival on September 7, 2022, and will be released in US theaters on August 4, 2023.

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