By Rahul Desai

Late into Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, a man tries to burn down the house of his wife’s lover. The two get into a scuffle. Suddenly, the husband stops. He notices that a boy – his teenage son – is watching. The boy, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), is the product of a dysfunctional family. It isn’t the first time he has encountered an idol-shattering moment. Only weeks ago, Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) sultrily danced with her new lover in front of him. The man spent a night with her inches away from Joe’s room. Only months ago, Joe’s father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) lost his job, drank himself into existentialism and chose to fight a forest fire at minimum pay – away from his responsibilities, his love, his home.

Joe has seen his parents drift. He has seen his mother discuss her dead marriage with him. He has watched her confide that she must seduce a rich man for a better future. The boy has seen things. Perhaps it’s why he trains in portrait photography – the art of capturing memories that are yet to be his. Perhaps it’s why he is no Average Joe. He operates in an emotional space beyond his tender age. The neighbourhood’s parents probably resent Jerry and Jeanette for failing to censor their marriage – for failing to build a safety wall between the bitterness of their adulthood and the innocence of his childhood. But Joe’s parents are precisely the reason this film rises above the cinematic clutter of dysfunctional-family stories.

Most kids, in movies and life, are ordered to go to bed when voices are raised in the living room. The illusion of protection, however, is worse than the presentness of pain. Cinema has long nursed a go-to image: A child eavesdropping at the top of a staircase, hugging a teddy bear, while his adults wage a war downstairs. This scene tends to appear as a flashback to justify the grown-up character’s mental fragility. Such memories are recalled with a tinge of resentment – the person is sad about the past, but also angry that the parents thought they were masking cracks under the cover of night. For instance, the titular character of Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale Jr., enjoys a life of deceit and forgery because maybe he felt that’s exactly what his parents subjected him to. They were anything but frank with Frank – they sought refuge in silence until a divorce was sprung upon his unsuspecting heart. He only saw the full picture once he got older. The more he learnt, the deeper he dived into a legacy of multiple personalities. His childhood, by then, felt like an elaborate lie.

But Joe’s folks channel the essence of the film’s title. Like wild animals, they run and roam and feed and break in full view of their surroundings. Survival is all that matters; they don’t care if others watch. They tread the thin line between reckless parenting and honest parenthood. Joe, right from the beginning, is a witness to the untamed fires burning in his home. Consequently, he is not afforded an opportunity to deify them – they remain unerringly human, and fallible, for him. If anything, he might empathize with Jerry and Jeanette, and perhaps even develop a sense of respect for their truth after the dust settles.

Wildlife presents a concept alien to the victims of most broken families. But the shock is amplified for the cocooned inhabitants of Indian culture. “Behind closed doors” is a well-known mantra of our elders; they function in a shroud of secrecy – even within their own four walls – the minute they inherit the crown of parenthood. I say ‘crown’ because much of their children’s shielding occurs with the primary motive of preserving their own domestic status. The act of protection is not entirely selfless – they conceal the ugliness of companionship less to safeguard their kids’ youth and more to maintain the unblemished rule of seniority in a heirarchal household. They fight like paupers in the shadows so that we continue respecting their king-making reflections. In the desperately traditional pursuit to be role models, our parents remodel the role of reality to occupy the backstage of fashion parades.

Once we are old enough to feel guilty, they spill it all with the disclaimer: “We suffered silently for you.” Secrets are buried into coal mines until they finally crumble – to reveal blood diamonds. And then we envy the unfiltered wildness of Joe’s parents. The real-time scars of Joe. The one family portrait he shot bore no pretensions, whereas we end up revisiting childhood albums to paint old memories with the colours of betrayal. Our life, in hindsight, feels like The Truman Show. The smiles look forced and the moments, tailored to widen the playground of authority.