Reel Dad: Wildlife – A father and son take a look

(In 1999, Mark and Jonathan Schumann started writing film reviews for Hersam Acorn in the column, Take Two, a father-and-son go to the movies. This week Jonathan, who now lives in New York City, joins his dad to look at the new film, Wildlife.)

Wildlife: Breathtaking family drama

By Mark Schumann

4 Popcorn Buckets

The freeze that can separate people who love comes to life in a rich tapestry of sadness, disappointment, anger and hope in Paul Dano’s moving look at the dark side of relationships in Wildlife, a recent feature at the New York Film Festival.

Wildlife – Still 1

This striking film, special in the clarity of its story, the daring of its view and the depth of its performances, works as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it accomplishes. Dano, much as he does as an actor, refuses to overplay, insisting instead on a quiet authenticity. He suggests what a situation may mean rather than pushing an interpretation. And he trusts his audience to see inside the pain these people bring to each other.

In crystal clear performances, Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan create full portraits of a married couple facing a range of disappointments. For the husband, a career includes a series of failures; for the wife, a curiosity of other men leads to poor choices. That they find themselves in a marriage trying to follow a script adds to the tension when real life doesn’t meet their expectations. Suddenly, “till death do us part” becomes a life sentence.

The restrained Dano resists the temptation to exaggerate the dramatics and, with Ed Oxenbould, he finds a child actor fully prepared to articulate the damage parents can inflict on children when standing in truth becomes impossible.

The movie reminds us, with its humanity, and its heart, how film can help us understand new layers of disappointment that can persist in any family.

Streaming pick

Kramer vs. Kramer

A landmark film in 1979 filled with honesty, and humor, as a father tries to adapt to life with his young son after his wife walks away. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep won well-deserved Oscars for underplaying what could have felt quite obvious.

Wildlife: A simmer, not a boil

By Jonathan Schumann

4 Popcorn Buckets

In his thoughtfully considered telling of a mid-century marriage in decline, first-time director Paul Dano announces himself as a skilled, compelling director to watch. This is an incredibly confident and sure-footed debut, one that takes a well-trod subject and makes it feel fresh and urgent.

When we meet Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, both excellent), we can already see the cracks beginning to show. They’ve recently moved to a small Montana town for unspecific reasons, something about Jerry needing to find work we suspect. His masculinity feels fragile from the start, a clear drive to be a good provider but a seeming inability to do so. Ultimately, he decides to take a job fighting a forest fire in the mountains, a move that creates an irreparable shift in their union.

At that point, Jeanette decides to do something for herself. She has an affair with a car salesman (the always welcome Bill Camp), dresses up, shirks her traditional motherly duties. When Jerry returns from the fire, it’s unclear how they’ll move forward. We experience all of this through the eyes of their son, Joe, played with extraordinary depth by Ed Oxenbould.

To Dano and his co-writer Zoe Kazan’s credit, nobody comes off as “the bad guy.” There’s no moral absolutism at work, just flawed people making mostly bad decisions. The film’s also thankfully short on histrionics, so the emotions are all subtly, realistically conveyed, always operating at a simmer, rather than a boil.

Streaming pick

Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal and another Western setting. What more could you want?

Wildlife runs 1 hour and 44 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for “thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking.” 

Kramer vs. Kramer: Brilliantly candid drama

By Mark Schumann

The impact of divorce is forever felt.

As Wildlife perfectly captures the layers of separation, it reminds us that, no matter who is at fault or how fair the proceedings may be, the separation of family hits everyone connected. And, regardless of the issues that may lead to divorce, this change in a family severely impacts everyone.

Kramer vs. Kramer – the landmark Oscar winner from 1979 – puts you in the middle of the tug of war between two young parents who decide to divorce. Caught in the middle is their young son who, like most young boys, deeply loves both parents, and would never imagine having to choose which one to live with. When his mother abruptly leaves, and his dad has to relearn the household basics, the young boy begins a journey to accept change in his life, to become more flexible in his expectations, and to make the most of the time he has with both parents.

The film does not take sides. Both father and mother can be selfish and giving, at almost the same time, and both want the best for the child they share. But neither seems capable to separate their feelings for each other from creating a compromise that might be best for the child. They each continue to push separate agendas with, it feels, only themselves in mind. Ultimately each, in their own ways, does learn, but someone must pay the price.

The film does not try to defend either point of view, or persuade you to side with one parent or the other. Instead director Robert Benton examines how people try to adjust to trying challenges. Through Benton’s eyes, Ted is not a perfect father; he must learn to reach beyond himself and care for more than how his career advances. Benton makes it easy to see how an insecure Joanna might have let the marriage get to her. But the director also gives Ted the chance to grow and change, something Joanna resists acknowledging when she returns to their lives. Through it all Benton wisely helps us remember that, as adults address their own emotions, a child gets caught in all the shrapnel.

Kramer’s strength is its objectivity. Benton is too savvy and caring to let opinion dilute the artistic and emotional value of the film. We never know who will win this struggle, or who should win, but we clearly know who will lose. Because the film never favors one parent or the other, it maintains its focus on how the issues between parents have lasting impact on a child, no matter how well intentioned the parents may be.

Kramer vs. Kramer offers no easy answers or simple explanations. When parents divorce, life forever changes in small ways that add up, from who sits at the dinner table, to how holidays are celebrated, to where children sleep. Parents, as they negotiate every step, can forget that children feel every bump. Dividing a home ultimately divides a heart. And that does not have a happy ending, not even in the movies.