Paul Dano’s debut feature as a director is well-photographed and well-acted. Actually, it’s probably more than just well-done. Dano shows potential of being a great director with this first outing. By the end, however, I shrugged my shoulders and yawned at whatever impression it was trying to make, which isn’t anything extraordinary. The film is an adaptation of a novel about a suburban Midwestern family consisting of a husband, wife and son that experiences a dissolution in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. That, as a topic, can be a springboard for a lot of things, but Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan don’t do much more with that topic. The movie is told mostly from the perspective of the son, which again is nothing new or innovative. Everything here is rather basic and I perhaps needed something more.
This summer, another domestic drama told from a child’s perspective was released. It was called We the Animals, and it gave us more than just a problematic marriage. It gave us a rich, cinematic experience with experimentation on style and form, as well as dealing with topics like a child’s sexuality. This movie doesn’t really invite us into the mind of the son. The son is simply an observer and the fact that he is a child is supposed to be shocking in what he witnesses on the part of his parents, particularly his mother.
Carey Mulligan (Mudbound and An Education) stars as Jeanette Brinson, a young wife and mother who used to be a teacher but has moved to a rural town in Montana and is content to be a stay-at-home mom, but the loss of her husband’s job forces her back into the workforce. She’s very supportive and even seemingly happy-go-lucky about the circumstances. She remains optimistic that things will be fine until her husband decides to take a job far away as a firefighter, requiring his extended absence from home. She’s upset but she gets over it, not taking that long to start an affair with an older man. What’s so brazen is that she doesn’t hide it from her son. In fact, she kisses this older man in front of her son.
Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow and Brokeback Mountain) co-stars as Jerry Brinson, the husband to Jeanette who starts out working at a country club with a golf course. He does various things like grounds-keeping. He loses his job for schmoozing and getting a little too friendly with the clients. He’s embarrassed and hugely humbled at the fact that his wife and son have to get jobs to help support the home. His pride prevents him from getting a more menial job even when the bills start piling up. He sees this opportunity to become a firefighter and takes it as almost a reclamation of his manhood, having felt a little emasculated by the turn in his domestic life.
Ed Oxenbould (The Visit and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) also stars as Joe Brinson, the teenage son whose at the center of all of this. He’s only 14 but he has a very old soul, it seems. He’s strong through his family’s financial issues and even marital issues. He does become worried as any child would of his parents’ arguing and growing distance. Yet, like most children all he can do his watch, and that’s the extent of his character. He simply watches his parents, specifically his mother break away from her marriage.
Joe gets a job as a photographer’s assistant. He doesn’t like football and we see he’s handy enough to fix the broken toilet and make dinner by going to the grocery store on his bicycle. Joe is even keen enough to know how to drive when his mother gets too drunk to do so. All of that helps us to understand who this child is, but that’s all there is. There’s nothing really much more to excite about this story. Yes, the third act features Jerry learning of Jeanette’s affair and that results in some excitement, but it’s not enough.
Maybe, that’s all that Dano wanted to do. Maybe he wanted to shatter this illusion or deconstruct what would be a still frame photo of his final shot in the movie. A nice, Midwestern family is not as perfect as one might think. Whatever thoughts one would have about a white father, mother and son in this time period are probably more rosy than the reality. Maybe Dano simply wanted to expose the truth that people weren’t happy and they struggled, even back then, which is fine, but again this isn’t new territory and it doesn’t do so in a way that would compel repeat viewing. The performances are really strong from all three actors though.
Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.
Playing in select cities, including Rehoboth Beach’s Cinema Art Theater