Dir: Paul Dano; Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Cate Jones. Cert: 12A, 105 mins.

A teenage boy sees his parents’ marriage crumble in actor Paul Dano’s poignant and very delicately observed directorial debut, Wildlife. Adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, this is a coming of age story set in small town Montana in the early 1960s. It has a superb performance from Carey Mulligan as the boy’s highly strung mother, trying to cope with loneliness and hardship.

Dano, who co-wrote the screenplay with his actress-writer partner Zoe Kazan, takes a very pared down approach to his material. We learn little of the back story of spouses Jeanette Brinson (Mulligan) and her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). They are an attractive couple, good-looking and intelligent, and yet clearly struggling in Eisenhower’s America.

Jerry is shown early on at the golf course, making small talk with wealthy looking men. He seems one of them, a fellow member of the country club, but then his boss comes into frame, telling him off for being too close to the patrons. He is just a humble green keeper. He has come to Montana with a vague hope of making his fortune, but spends his days raking bunkers. Money is running out and his cheques are bouncing. Jerry is too proud to take menial work and yet can’t land a well-paid job. He has high hopes his son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) will become a star player for the high school football team. Joe, though, is a quiet and bookish boy who has no aptitude for the game.

“I am just too well liked; that’s my problem,” the father complains, sounding like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman. Jeanette tries to hold the family together and goes searching for work, eventually landing a position as a swimming instructor. All the while, we hear references to wildfires raging on the plains beyond town. The symbolism isn’t always subtle. The boy knows his family life is about to go up in flames.

Dano shoots Wildlife in natural light wherever possible. Most of the film is seen from Joe’s point of view. He is trying to join the dots and make sense of his parents’ behaviour. His after school job as a photographer’s assistant helps. He is being taught how to freeze moments in time. Again and again Dano will give us the boy’s perspective. If a couple have an illicit affair, this won’t be shown directly, but Joe will peer through a doorway at a bedroom with crumpled sheets and discarded underwear on the floor.

Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) daydreams of making his fortune (Rex)

As the mother, Mulligan is impulsive, quick-thinking and very resourceful in dealing with her predicament. She seems far too glamorous for her surroundings. She is full of energy and passion, but is stuck with her son in a backwater town where the monotony is overwhelming. Mulligan conveys brilliantly her character’s yearning and passion, her frustration. Her behaviour becomes ever more reckless and erratic. Gyllenhaal impresses too as the stubborn husband, too proud to react to straitened circumstances. We see him staring vacantly at a TV he can’t even get to work properly, practising golf shots in the back yard or slumped asleep in his car when he should be searching for work. He can’t accept his wife is the breadwinner.

Playing the boy, Oxenbould looks nothing like either parent and seems old for a role as a young teenager, but he strikes just the right note as the voyeuristic adolescent observer, devoted to his parents and powerless to stop them breaking up. Joe is a self-effacing figure and a bit of a loner. The filmmakers include scenes of him struggling to fit in at his new school, but most of the time he is shown at home, looking in on his parents’ lives. He is morbidly fascinated by their self-destructive behaviour.

Dano is showing us a period in American life that isn’t often chronicled. We have had dozens of films set in the Depression, in which families have to traipse across the country in search of work. Wildlife is set in 1960, in theory a far more prosperous period. The wealth and opportunity around them make Jerry and Jeanette’s plight seem all the more desperate. They just can’t get ahead, whatever they try. As the son soon works out, there is a direct link between prosperity and emotional wellbeing.

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Wildlife isn’t any kind of feelgood romp, but it has an emotional richness and subtlety you simply don’t find in most movies about the growing pains of American teenagers. In his performances in films such as There Will Be Blood and Love & Mercy, Dano has long excelled at playing awkward, oddball visionary types. His spiky style behind the camera matches his acting. In a directorial debut of immense promise, he never makes the obvious decision, instead trying to get under the skin of his characters.

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