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Synopsis: 14-year-old Joe is the only child of Jeanette and Jerry—a housewife and a golf pro—in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job—and his sense of purpose—he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water. (IFC Films)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, and Jake Gyllenhaal
Writers: Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan
Director: Paul Dano
Rating: PG-13 (United States)
Running Time: 104mins
Ever since its Sundance premiere, actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut has impressed and it’s easy to see why. Dano gets to show off some impressive style throughout but it’s really his actors who carried the film. The story here was about the trials and tribulations of a 1960s mid-west family. The Brinson family, Jeanette (Mulligan), Jerry (Gyllenhaal), and Joe (Oxenbould), were living the American dream. That dream suddenly became tougher once the family faced some adversity with the economic uncertainty of the time.
The general desperation of the time led to the eventual implosion of Jeanette and Jerry’s marriage, forcing Joe to try and pick up the pieces. With Jerry gone, Joe became the de facto man of the house. Joe was not the only one affected by Jerry’s absence as Jeanette struggled as well. The story was told from Joe’s perspective which made it much more compelling to watch as he was far more interesting than both his parents. His impressive maturity and sheer positivity compared to that of his parents was infectious and it was easy to feel bad for him.
The acting was the best part of the film and was good across the board. Mulligan has earned plenty of acclaim for her performance as Jeanette which is understandable since she gave a great performance here but it was difficult to empathize with her character. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal was good as Jerry despite his small sample size. The best of the three was Oxenbould as Joe. He was on screen for the majority of the film and he made the best of it, impressively standing toe to toe with his more experienced co-stars.
Overall, this was a bleak character period piece and an impressive directorial debut from Paul Dano. Dano showed plenty of style with a decent script but it was the performances from Mulligan, Oxenbould, and Gyllenhaal that elevated it and brought the whole film over the top.