Thankfully, writer/director Bill Pohlad has brought their tale to the silver screen with the same thoughtful, humanist lens with which he made the excellent Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy” a decade ago. While his new film hits all the cursory beats of their rediscovery, including a few scenes of Chris Messina playing their record company savior Matt Sullivan, Pohlad is less interested in the album’s resurrection than he is in the psychological effects this had on the duo, especially on the more naturally talented Donnie (Casey Affleck).
The film begins in the forest surrounding the Emerson farm. The dark blue night sky is illuminated by the amber lights of their homemade recording studio. A young Donnie (Noah Jupe) strums one of their songs, “Good Time.” Its reverb-laden vocals, slick guitar riffs, and crashing drums echo as the scene shifts to the boy performing on a stage, the audience hidden by shadows. The lyrics “Did you have a good, good time?” repeat on loop until the adult Donnie awakens, as if it were all a dream.
Throughout the film, Pohlad employs this hazy, dreamlike editing as Donnie remains haunted by his younger self and the broken promise the album represents. At first, it seems Donnie, who runs a flailing recording studio and plays weddings and dive bars with his wife Nancy (Zooey Deschanel), is mourning solely the loss of his artistic dreams. But as Donnie spends more time with his brother Joe (a tender Walton Goggins) and father Don Sr. (Beau Bridges, never better) preparing for a comeback concert, it’s clear there’s more emotional baggage here than meets the eye.
While in “Love & Mercy,” the two Brian Wilsons were played in lockstep by John Cusack and Paul Dano at different ages, the lines between the past and present here are a little more blurred. Jupe’s young Donnie is filtered through Affleck’s memories. At first, he’s the wide-eyed, hopefully teen legend printed by the New York Times. But soon, a more realistic, somber portrait of his youth and his rocky relationship with young Joe (Jack Dylan Grazer) and their father is revealed.
The director also flirts with flights of magical realism. When Donnie and Joe play their first big gig—an anniversary show for Light in the Attic at the Showbox in Seattle—like a specter, a disappointed young Donnie stares at older Donnie on the stage. Later, the two sit together outside the old recording studio to broker a peace between what once was and what now is. It’s an incredibly effective way of visualizing Donnie’s internal attempt at coming to terms with his own self-loathing.