The last time Paul Dano was celebrated at the Sundance Film Festival, he was riding waves atop Daniel Radcliff’s farting corpse like a jet-ski in 2016’s Swiss Army Man.

The last time Zoe Kazan was at Sundance, she was starring opposite Kumail Nunjiani in the beloved romantic comedy, The Big Sick. This year, the creative duo and real-life couple returned to the festival with a movie of their own, a passion project of Dano’s which he directed and co-wrote with Kazan. Adapted from the 1990 Richard Ford novel, Wildlife makes its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category and marks Dano’s directorial debut.

Wildlife tells the story of a small town nuclear family in 1960s Montana. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) live a simple life: he works on a golf course, she’s a homemaker. Their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) attends public school and struggles to meet friends, a by-product of the family’s consistent moving around the country due to Jerry’s flighty nature and always-changing career paths. After an unexpected layoff not only hurts his financial stability but also his pride, Jerry makes a spur of the moment decision to uproot his life and join a nearby firefighting brigade that is battling an uncontrollably burning forest fire close by, leaving his small family behind for an unknown period of time.

As the movie shows through the limited but observant perspective of Joe, his mother edges ever closer towards the brink of unforgivable resentment and finds herself coping in ways a married woman shouldn’t. From getting a part-time job to exploring an extra-marital affair with a client (Bill Camp), she slowly discovers her own independence. As Jeanette begins to figure out what she really wants out of life, this leaves Joe, still waiting for his father’s return, to be the emotional sounding board for his family. Witnessing his parent’s marriage fall apart right before his eyes is devastating, and even more so because of how much his parents each depend on him to be the anchor through these rocky seas.

Dano certainly proves that he can command a tough yet tender film both technically and creatively.

It’s obvious that every detail of Wildlife has been carefully crafted from the eyes of a passionate artist. From the 1960s costumes to every detail of production design, the ambiance of the film screams warmth and heart, even if its central characters struggle with those same virtues. Here, Dano proves that he has not been an idle actor on all those movie sets he’s been on, showcasing a strong visual style all his own (with maybe some compositional influences from P.T. Anderson). Every frame of Wildlife looks like it was lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, the sweeping cool blue hues give a layer of sophisticated authenticity to this quiet yet powerful indie drama.

Beyond the film’s visual style, Dano’s influence is also readily apparent in his direction with his actors. Wildlife is very much an “actor’s movie” – long, uninterrupted takes give the characters time to go through multiple emotions in a single setting; we see Joe work through feelings from confusion to submission, Jeanette from resentment to independence, and Jerry from disillusion to wild passion throughout the course of the movie. And this long-form character development works wonders here. While Gyllenhaal and Mulligan’s star power burns bright, their flawed characters connect effortlessly with audiences, allowing us to see the same struggles in both of them that we can see in ourselves. A fantastic leading performance from Ed Oxenbould grounds the film in the dark reality of outgrowing relationships.

It will be interesting to see Dano and Kazan’s film-making path post-Wildlife, which is a confident debut in and of itself. Dano certainly proves that he can command a tough yet tender film both technically and creatively. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next. 

104 minutes. ‘Wildlife’ is not yet rated.