Credit: Sundance Institute

This year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup is filled with actors moving behind the camera, including Idris Elba, Rupert Everett, and festival fixture Paul Dano.

Dano made the leap with Wildlife, an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. The film, from a screenplay by Dano and Zoe Kazan, debuted Saturday at Sundance to enthusiastic reception and positive reviews.

The film stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry and Jeanette Brinson, a married couple with a teenage son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who live in a small town in Montana in 1960. When Jerry loses his job, he impulsively leaves town to help fight a raging wildfire in the nearby mountains, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves, not knowing whether he’ll ever return.

“I wanted to make a film for a long time,” Dano said during the audience Q&A following the screening in Park City’s grand Eccles Theater. “I was really moved by [Ford’s book], and I think something that he captured that I loved was the feeling that family is one of the greatest loves of our life. And because of that, it’s also one of the greatest sources of struggle and possibly pain in our life, and it’s because of love that we experience that pain. And so the compassion towards these sort of flawed parents, and witnessing that through the kid’s eyes, spoke to me.”

The cast had nothing but effusive praise for the first-time filmmaker. “He’s encouraging, challenging, and inquisitive about things, always has the right note, understands when you get stuck in a rut or have a moment of self-doubt — he knows how to get you out of it, because he’s been in those moments himself,” Mulligan said of her longtime friend. “I just knew he was going to make a brilliant film, because he makes brilliant choices in his own work, and I could only imagine he would mirror all those instincts in a film that he made, and I think he has.” Following this ode, she looked over at Dano across the stage and said, “Don’t roll your eyes at me!”

Bill Camp, who plays a man who befriends Jeanette following Jerry’s departure, echoed Mulligan. “I had an implicit sense of trust in him,” the actor said of Dano. “He’s smart. He’s articulate. He’s tall.”

But Gyllenhaal outdid them both. “There’s a sort of persistent rhythm that is never-ending, and underneath which is a fire that is so sensitive and so loving, and full of empathy — but somehow also just quiet. And I think that’s what you’ve just experienced [watching the film]. … And also, he is probably more of a man than I could ever be,” Gyllenhaal said, his voice trailing off dramatically as the audience erupted in laughter. “I mean, what are we supposed to say? He’s great! He’s our friend! Come on, we wanted to work with him, he’s a great guy!”

The critics were similarly enthusiastic about Dano and Wildlife, which has not yet been picked up for distribution. See some reactions below.

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