Wildlife ★★★★½

"I feel like I need to wake up, but I don't know what from, or what to."

Postwar America, 1960, when every able-bodied red-blooded man was a hero to his wife and children for helping the family achieve the American Dream. But in the underbelly of this lily-white fairytale of perfection, many families faced crises like the Brinsons in Great Falls, Montana, breaking at the seams while at the crossroads of fantasy and reality.

And such it is in this Sundance darling and three-time nominee at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards. In Paul Dano's directorial debut Wildlife, through patient filmmaking and an impressive script he helped write with Zoe Kazan -- based on Richard Ford's 1990 novel of the same name -- the actors at the center of the film are given strong direction but artistic leeway in his trust in their tremendous skill. Jake Gyllenhaal is the despondent father in that American Dream deferred, and Carey Mulligan in perhaps the best role of her career is the resolute mother dedicated to saving her family for the good of her sweet yet astutely observant teenage son, but tortured in her undefined cage.

While the cinematography and adapted screenplay and direction deserve praise -- patient in its tone and scope, but exacting in its time and place -- you cannot watch this film without being awed by Carey Mulligan in what may end up as the best performance by a female actor this year (but damn, Glenn Close floored me last weekend in The Wife). She is the embodiment of "the problem that has no name" as Betty Friedan elucidated; when feminist independence was but a twinkle in the Baby Boomers eyes and the struggle for what to do when that dream is deferred means facing it head on.

Sometimes an actor can be in a Hollywood bubble when discussing his or her role, but I have to quote Mulligan herself at the New York Film Festival from last year giving an astounding answer to a fan's criticism of the gradual unhinging of her character: "We're all too used to only seeing women behaving really well [in movies]," Mulligan said. "When we see them out of control or struggling it doesn't ring true because of everything we've been brought up to understand that women are always perfect and can do anything. That’s an unrealistic expectation of a woman. Seeing real humanity on-screen can be really jarring from a female perspective." Fuck. Yes. Carey. Women do not need to justify a passionate rage, especially in the era portrayed in the film, one of a disquiet yearning for freedom to just be.

Damaged lives and broken families are hardly ever this watchable, especially in period dramas without explicit sex or violence. But Dano makes it work, the cinematography by Diego García beautifies it, and Mulligan aces her role as a spurned wife and mother desperately aching in her feminine mystique.