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'Dreamin' Wild' Review

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August 1, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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This review was originally published at the 2023 Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Film Festival. Roadside Attractions releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 04.

History is full of instances where creative geniuses were overlooked in their own time, only to get the proper amount of recognition long after they’ve left our mortal world. Vincent van Gogh personally sold only one painting; the majority of the poems by Emily Dickinson never saw the light of day until decades after her death; and Johann Sebastian Bach was only known as a simple organist during his active days.

But what if that rush of recognition wasn’t delayed so posthumously? What if all that work was reappraised during their lifetime? Would those figures celebrate their newfound success, or would it disrupt the unappreciated lives they had content themselves with? Such are the questions within Bill Pohlad’s sophomore feature, which premiered last fall at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, and just made its American debut as the opening night selection for the writer/director’s hometown Minneapolis St. Paul Film Festival.

In the late 1970s, the teenage brothers of Donnie (Noah Jupe) and Joe Emmerson (Jack Dylan Grazer) recorded an album called “Dreamin’ Wild” in their makeshift studio their dad built on the family farmland. Nothing came of it, with most copies going unsold and taking up space in their parent’s basement. The brothers moved on with their lives. Thirty years later, a producer hears the album and is compelled to track down the creators. The record is remastered and re-released to great acclaim, sparking a newfound nationwide interest, capped off with an article in The New York Times.

The adult Donnie (Casey Affleck) is a bit skeptical of all this attention and isn’t sure if he wants to get back into the life he left behind so long ago. Affleck’s performance may as well have been lifted straight from Manchester by the Sea, which earned him an Oscar. There’s a quiet sense of guilt and regret in his demeanor, as his first go at music fame cost his dad a small fortune. Joe (Walton Goggins) is the less talented brother, but he’s always trying his best on the drums and there as support. While Donnie struggles with finding the passion he once had as a teenager, Joe is more than willing to dive into the musical beats once again.

Pohlad started out his Hollywood journey as a producer for several talented filmmakers such as Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Sean Penn (Into the Wild), and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). His directorial debut came in 2014 with Love & Mercy, a biography of The Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, split between his youthful origins and later broken years. 

Dreamin’ Wild repeats that exact narrative structure, with Donnie and Joe literally looking into their past on multiple occasions. “Magical realism” is the way Pohlad described his approach to the film, with the exact stylings leaning close to that of Malick (sans whisper narration). But just as Malick’s name is misspelled in the “special thanks” portion of the end credits, Pohlad’s emulation of his style isn’t totally correct either. Some scenes are a little amateurish in their production qualities, and some of the interesting creative ideas are sandwiched between the story beats we’ve come to expect within the musician genre.

Still, the director’s love and appreciation for the Emersons is always evident, almost as if he made the movie more for them than the paying audiences. That emotional reverence is what I walked away from the movie feeling the most, which is more than I can say about the majority of biopics these days.

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