Elegantly and economically adapted from Richard Ford’s novel, "Wildlife" is a coming-of-age film for two generations, one of whom missed out on being young the first time. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

A small-scale gem with a haunting final image, Paul Dano’s debut feature “Wildlife” is the story of a 1960s family quietly imploding. The Brinsons — mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) — are newly arrived in a small Montana town. We learn quickly that money is tight, that this isn’t the family’s first relocation, and that both Jeanette and Jerry seem preoccupied with the idea of a life other than the one they have. When Jerry, in the film’s early scenes, loses his job at a local golf course, a fault line in the family ruptures.

Elegantly and economically adapted from Richard Ford’s novel by Dano and Zoe Kazan (screenwriter of one of my favorite smart rom-coms of recent years, “Ruby Sparks”), “Wildlife” mostly unfolds from the point of view of Joe, who loves both of his parents but is mystified by what’s happening in their marriage. Oxenbould’s softly soulful performance provides a frame for the explosion that is Mulligan’s Jeanette, a woman of quicksilver emotion and slow-burn resentment. She’s fond of her own husky voice, speaking words as if stroking them; feeling her way into another, more reckless persona. “I’m 34. Does that seem like the wrong age?” Jeanette asks her son, and suddenly we realize that this is a coming-of-age film for two generations; one of whom missed out on being young the first time.

Diego Garcia’s cinematography plays a key role, showing us lavender sunsets, endless plains and fire spreading down a hill like melting butter. Amid this beauty, Dano’s direction is restrained, letting us focus on the pain in Mulligan’s darting eyes. And that final shot — the perfect illustration of a speech given by a minor character early on, about memories — will break your heart, in the best of ways.

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★★★½ “Wildlife,” with Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Paul Dano, from a screenplay by Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on the novel by Richard Ford. 104 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking. Opens Nov. 2 at the Meridian, Seattle 10.