Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould and Jake Gyllenhaal appear in Wildlife by Paul Dano, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

The first thing Wildlife, the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, wants to make clear is that it’s aware of everything you might expect it to be about. It immediately emphasizes its awareness of the structural and thematic conventions of the family drama: alcoholic fathers, desperate mothers, depressed uncles, kids listening to their parents fight. And then it does what a good film, a subtle film, is allowed to do; it conforms. It chooses the desperate mother and the rage-induced father. And it organizes familiar faces, subjects and themes into a new, and moving, pattern.

The year is 1960; the source material is a novel by Richard Ford. It involves three characters, although a fourth is added. The love triangle of mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is disrupted when newly jobless Jerry leaves home indefinitely to fight wildfires in Montana. This absence provokes a family identity crisis: the son finds himself parent to his mother, while the mother reverts to reveries of youth.

The costumes, sets, lighting, colors, writing, and acting are all more than competently handled, but the action of Wildlife is the motion of the camera. Dano and his DP Diego García keep the frame steady, heightening our sensitivity to spare movements—one tilt seems titanic (there’s a slow one in the middle of the film, for instance, where we first see wildfires), one pan paradigmatic.

Wildlife’s subject is, appropriately, the image with which we spend the most time: Joe’s gaze. We watch him watch his parents in moments of quiet and chaos. Jeanette’s admonition of Joe, that he can’t really pass judgment on the situation of his parents because he “hasn’t really done anything,” is the film’s salient quip; it identifies Wildlife with Hitchcock, a key reference. The drama of the film is what Cahier critic Pascal Bonitzer called the “stain”, the sudden revelation of something perverse in a seemingly banal world. Still young—like a barely exposed negative—Joe is forced to process the objects and half-truths of sexual maturity at an unnatural rate. Or perhaps the rate is wholly natural; it is the chaos of experience, the stark and destabilizing surprise of early realizations about sex, love, death, marriage, and money, that are of interest to Wildlife.

Whether we understand these first encounters as Hitchcock and Freud did (as “stains”) might be more within our control than it seems. Joe studies the world not at a distance, but intimately. When he and his mother have dinner with Warren Miller, the man who looks to pull her away from Jerry, Joe finds himself alone in Miller’s bedroom, studying the possessions of an older man: a big bed, a polished pair of shoes, a condom. These objects in all their graphic significance seem to unnerve him, but the film’s final scene shows his evolution from experience’s receptacle to its creative partner when he brings his broken, reluctant family to his photography studio and organizes them within one frame. Joe’s last creative act, the taking of a photograph, is one that ostensibly falsifies, or perverts, the reality of his parents’ divorce. The success of the film is that Joe’s effort doesn’t feel like cheating. It feels sincere.