It’s unfair that I watched Wildife. Now I have to poop out a review. The umpteenth film I’ve seen this year that I could not possibly care less about, Paul Dano’s directorial debut exists in the cinematic uncanny valley. It looks great and you’d be stupid to think we live in a universe where stars Carey Mulligan and Jake “Still Paying His Debt to Society for Bubble Boy (2001) by Becoming One of the Best Actors of His Generation” Gyllenhaal could give bad performances. Wildlife looks and sounds so much like a good movie, it actually makes me anxious that it isn’t one.

The proverbial rich dentist who travels to Zimbabwe to kill Wildlife is simply that the film has no bite. Historically, directorial debuts tend to be their filmmaker’s craziest movie. They’re so excited by the opportunity to finally direct a film someone else pays for, and so terrified they’ll never have the privilege again, that they throw everything at the screen. I can’t help but wonder if Dano meant to do the exact opposite. That’s not a cheap dig, even if it’s really a bad idea. Dano tries and fails to emulate what he thinks a seasoned director’s movie looks like.

If some Film-Twitter God like Robert Altman directed Wildlife at the tail-end of a career that included MASH and Short Cuts, maybe he could turn it into spirited “Oscar bait,” at the very least. As it stands, Wildlife is about a mother (Mulligan) caring for her son (Ed Oxenbould, who’s just fine) while daddy (Gyllenhaal) goes off to fight forest fires. If you’ve ever seen an independent drama, you may not be able to guess specific beats but I’m sure you can already imagine grand strokes of the storytelling. Like I said, it looks great. The acting’s top-notch. Both elements often times fall into the First Time Director Trap of being less about building story, but about being the most movie in any given moment.

Moving on, time for the soapbox… This year I haven’t reviewed nearly as many new independent films as I’ve actually seen because they’re just so boring. 2018 is the violent crescendo of a problem that’s been getting worse throughout my entire life: independent films aren’t independent films anymore. Their budgets are now so big that they can afford Hollywood stars and world class behind-the-scenes talent. I can’t remember the last time I watched a so-called “independent film” with poor production value, starring a bunch of nobodies. Securing bigger budgets means telling more marketable stories, which is the exact opposite of the reason independent films used to have so much appeal in the first place.

There’s nothing in Wildlife I couldn’t see in a garden variety studio film. Maybe it’s story is told on a much smaller scale, sure, but the themes aren’t necessarily more mature than studio fare. I’m bugged by folks who assume independent films are automatically “better” or “more serious” just by virtue of being independent films. Wildlife is yet another sad example of why indies less and less becoming serious alternatives to studio films. Nothing against studio films. I just wish that I could watch a film called Wildlife and actually see something wild.

Grade = C+

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