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Dreamin' Wild

The melancholic melodies of Donnie and Joe Emerson don’t quite feel of this world. Particularly “Baby,” a song which always sounds like something out of a dream. The duo, who grew up on an insular family farm in rural Fruitland, Washington, were teenagers when they self-released their only album—the wistful, soul-inspired “Dreamin’ Wild”—in 1979, without much fanfare. Over 30 years later, the album got a second life when the reissue from boutique label Light in the Attic Records became a cult success. A standard biopic of a story like this could easily write itself. 

Thankfully, writer/director Bill Pohlad has brought their tale to the silver screen with the same thoughtful, humanist lens with which he made the excellent Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” a decade ago. While his new film hits all the cursory beats of their rediscovery, including a few scenes of Chris Messina playing their record company savior Matt Sullivan, Pohlad is less interested in the album’s resurrection than he is in the psychological effects this had on the duo, especially on the more naturally talented Donnie (Casey Affleck). 

The film begins in the forest surrounding the Emerson farm. The dark blue night sky is illuminated by the amber lights of their homemade recording studio. A young Donnie (Noah Jupe) strums one of their songs, “Good Time.” Its reverb-laden vocals, slick guitar riffs, and crashing drums echo as the scene shifts to the boy performing on a stage, the audience hidden by shadows. The lyrics “Did you have a good, good time?” repeat on loop until the adult Donnie awakens, as if it were all a dream. 

Throughout the film, Pohlad employs this hazy, dreamlike editing as Donnie remains haunted by his younger self and the broken promise the album represents. At first, it seems Donnie, who runs a flailing recording studio and plays weddings and dive bars with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), is mourning solely the loss of his artistic dreams. But as Donnie spends more time with his brother Joe (a tender Walton Goggins) and father Don Sr. (Beau Bridges, never better) preparing for a comeback concert, it’s clear there’s more emotional baggage here than meets the eye.

While in “Love & Mercy,” the two Brian Wilsons were played in lockstep by John Cusack and Paul Dano at different ages, the lines between the past and present here are a little more blurred. Jupe’s young Donnie is filtered through Affleck’s memories. At first, he’s the wide-eyed, hopefully teen legend printed by the New York Times. But soon, a more realistic, somber portrait of his youth and his rocky relationship with young Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer) and their father is revealed. 

The director also flirts with flights of magical realism. When Donnie and Joe play their first big gig—an anniversary show for Light in the Attic at the Showbox in Seattle—like a specter, a disappointed young Donnie stares at older Donnie on the stage. Later, the two sit together outside the old recording studio to broker a peace between what once was and what now is. It’s an incredibly effective way of visualizing Donnie’s internal attempt at coming to terms with his own self-loathing. 

It also is a wonderful payoff for how Pohlad films the early scenes with Donnie and his family. Whenever Sullivan gives them good news, or Joe and Don Sr. happily reminisce, Pohlad often holds the camera directly on Affleck’s emotive face, under which he’s holding back a sea of unexpressed feelings—about these shared memories, these “good times,” and his guilt at not only not fulfilling his own dreams, but in pulling his whole family down as well. 

Although Pohlad successfully crafts a complex and tense dynamic between Donnie, Joe, and Don Sr., he fails to bring that same dimensionality to the women in the film, including their sisters and mother, and especially Donnie’s wife, Nancy. This is a pointed failure for Pohlad, considering the wonderful showcase the role of Melinda Ledbetter was for Elizabeth Banks in “Love & Mercy.”

Despite this, Pohlad’s film, like the music at its heart, has a beguiling, oneiric quality. “Dreamin’ Wild” is a rich and evocative portrait of the weight of broken dreams and the strength one can find in a family as unwaveringly supportive as the Emersons.

Now playing in theaters. 

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Film Credits

Dreamin’ Wild movie poster

Dreamin’ Wild (2023)

Rated PG for language and thematic elements.

110 minutes


Casey Affleck as Donnie Emerson

Walton Goggins as Joe Emerson

Zooey Deschanel as Nancy

Beau Bridges as Don Emerson Sr.

Chris Messina as Matt Sullivan

Noah Jupe as Young Donnie Emerson

Jack Dylan Grazer as Young Joe Emerson


Writer (magazine article)





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