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Review: 'Wildlife' 

The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano and piercing domestic drama "Wildlife" is based on Richard Ford's 1990 novel about a family whose seemingly happy life begins to implode at the dawn of the 60's. As the film begins, 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) have only recently settled in Great Falls, Montana, after relocating from Idaho.

The family is often on the move, subject to Jerry's sporadic ability to find work. And when Jerry is fired from his most recent job as a golf caddie, Jeanette attempts to ease some of the financial strain by getting a job as a swim instructor, supporting her husband in his search for new gainful employment. Meanwhile Joe does his part by working a part-time job at a local photographer's studio.

But Jerry's pride prevents him from taking a job he sees as beneath him and, in what appears to be a misguided attempt at repairing his wounded manhood, he impulsively joins a crew fighting the raging forest fires in the mountains, leaving his wife and son on their own. Jeanette's attempts to carry on without him come to a head as she enters into a relationship with a wealthy older man (Bill Camp) who can provide her with the type of stability she's never experienced before. As Jeanette and Jerry's marriage disintegrates, they discover that the American dream of a picture-perfect family and comfortable home doesn't necessarily guarantee lifelong happiness.

Joe's character is mostly an observer throughout, allowing us a window into the increasingly fractured lives of his family. Oxenbould is quite good as the film's watchful heart, capably capturing the time in every child's life when we start seeing our parents as people with their own wants and needs, prone to making the same mistakes as anyone else.

But the film belongs to Mulligan, playing a woman stifled by societal expectations and her roles as a housewife and mother. When her husband's absence presents her with an opportunity to break free, she desperately grasps at what could be a chance to start over again. It's a wonderfully messy and complicated role that's unconcerned with winning audience sympathy. The talented Mulligan delivers a superb, career-best performance.

On a certain level, the story "Wildlife" tells is not an unfamiliar one, seen in any number of Sundance-type movies of the years. But working from a script he adapted with his longtime partner, actress and writer Zoe Kazan, Dano brings an understated emotion and incisive empathy to this tender and quietly powerful character study.

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