MOVIE | A meditative true story about a musician hopeful for fame drags at times, but carries off an uplifting finish
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Amid a pasture of cows and a graveyard of machinery, light shines through a farmhouse window. Inside, young Donnie Emerson (Noah Jupe) strums an electric guitar. He opens a door only to be inundated by a crowd roaring his praise—a crowd that fades back into the lights of the family farm. It’s Donnie’s dissolving dream.
A dream within a dream, as it turns out. Next we see grown-up Donnie (Casey Affleck) rising from his nostalgic sleep, rolling out of bed, then waking his own kids.
It’s a slow start to Dreamin’ Wild, this meditative true story that features endless shots of Casey Affleck being sad—something you have to admit he’s really good at. We soon learn the reason for Donnie’s defeat: His wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel) announces their music studio is “unbooked, the whole day … and the bank called.”
The opening credits don’t drop until 20 minutes in, long after the incredulous Donnie gets a life-changing call from his brother Joe. Out in rural Fruitland, Wash., the Emerson brothers have missed the internet buzz about them. Dreamin’ Wild, the record the duo recorded when they were teenagers, has been discovered by critics and hailed as a “godlike symphony to teenhood.”
The film lacks the emotional punch of its source material, both the article it’s based on (“Fruitland” by Steven Kurutz) and the teen album itself. Its flashbacks to young Donnie sparkle with verve, but much of the film feels like a lullaby. Viewers long for some narrative carrot to compel them forward.
But the story resonates with familial love. When the boys are young, the Emersons’ father, Don Sr., sells off his farmland bit by bit to pay for Donnie’s musical passion, building the boys a “Practice Place” loaded with instruments and recording equipment where Donnie can produce his record. His father thinks it’s destined for greatness and continues believing even when boxes of unsold recordings pile up at the homestead. Young Donnie leaves his less gifted brother behind to go solo but never achieves the same homespun magic without Joe’s lagging drums. But he doesn’t know how much he needs his brother yet.
Decades later, fearing the loss of their new fame, Donnie must redefine his relationship with his less ambitious brother Joe. Their tenuous brotherly bond and Don Sr.’s Christ-like sacrifice hold the movie together. Ultimately the Emersons keep faith—both in God and in the power of family. When grown-up Donnie repents for his part in the family’s financial loss, his father comforts him: “I would have given up all the land and farm just to hear that—to hear you.”