We need to talk about Wildlife – and witnessing divorce

After hearing a few of my favourite podcasts talking about Paul Dano’s directorial debut, I felt compelled to go and see Wildlife. Adapted from the book of the same name by Richard Ford, the screenplay for this small independent film was written by Dano and Zoe Kazan – two actors-turned-filmmakers who I am a big fan of.

The reviews I listened to about this film gave a very light overview of the plot – they mostly just recommended going to see it. I didn’t watch any trailers or read too much about it – but as strange as it sounds, I wanted to see this film because I knew how it ended.

For a bit of quick background, Paul Dano directs Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeannette and Jerry Brinson. The pair are a married couple whose relationship breaks apart after they move to a somewhat sleepy town in Montana in 1960. The movie is largely from the perspective of their son Joe, played to outstanding effect by Ed Oxenbould.

The cinematography – led by Diego García – is really something. The film’s scenes would seem to be simple to block and set up shots for, but instead Garcia creates a window into the subjects’ lives that’s nothing short of beautiful. Put this next to Dano’s steady and considered pacing, and Wildlife presents a seemingly-gentle, yet realistic look at a life event that affects lots of people.  


One of my favourite things about this film is the interaction between Ed and Carey Mulligan who, unsurprisingly, is being talked about for an academy award nod for her role. Without wanting to give too much away, the film centres on Joe as he struggles to keep his mother on the straight and narrow when his father takes off without much consultation to do a dangerous job. Joe Brinson is the film’s narrative compass and Ed Oxenbould’s performance is all heart. Equal parts heartwarming and part heartbreaking.

Because when we talk about Wildlife, we need to talk about what it’s like to witness a divorce.

This review’s taken a little bit of time to get together in my head, let alone on this blog. One of the things the film reminded when I left the cinema was how movies can have a completely different impact on different people.

Wildlife is about a married couple splitting up. Mrs Izzard – whose parents have been very happily married for 28 years – felt the film was a bit long and laboured. As someone whose parents divorced when he was 13 on the other hand, it felt very different. Wildlife made me think about the time I saw two people part ways who were, until a certain point, inextricably linked together.

With that in mind, I wanted to see more of Joe’s experience. I wanted to know exactly how he felt in every scene, to make sure he was okay while largely, he looked after his mother. I loved the film, strangely because it sparked memories in me of the complete confusion I felt when my parents split up. (And for the record, I’d like to make it clear – this was a long time ago, both my parents are remarried and very happy.)

The divorcing couple in films or on TV always sit down with their kids to reassure them that it’s not their fault. And I always thought this was a strange one.

At no point did I ever think my parents’ divorce was to do with me. And for someone who loves to be the centre of attention as much as I do, that’s rare. I remember exactly where I was when my parents sat a 12 year-old me down with my brother and sister and told us that they weren’t going to be together anymore. They might have told us it wasn’t our fault – but I was too upset to think about it. I don’t think I even asked any questions because in that moment it just felt like the worst that that could have happened.

Then, that turned into anger. Anger which to my fault, lasted for much longer than it should of. And I wasn’t angry at anyone in particular. The reality was that I was a teenager and something changed that I didn’t like. I felt like everyone and everything around me was completely against me. It all seems very dramatic to think about now, but at the time, it was everything.

And what I don’t think I ever heard, was someone telling me that it was okay to feel angry. This is something we should all think about every so often. I feel like we bottle too much up. It’s not a bad thing to have a strong emotional reaction to any life event. We need to be reminded that it’s okay to feel however our brain tells us to.

One thing however, that I didn’t think clearly about when my parents were going through a divorce, was my parents – who were going through a divorce. Even if both parties know it’s the right thing to do, divorce is unlikely a pleasant experience for those involved.

I wish I’d had the foresight to think a little more about who that life event was worse for. I wish I’d have told my mum and my dad that it was okay to be angry. Or upset. Or anything.

More than lots of films I’ve seen recently, Wildlife hit me right in the heart. And it’s somewhat incredible that movies are able to do that. So while I think about, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s alright to feel something about anything.

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