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(104 mins, 12A) Di­rected by Paul Dano; star­ring Jake Gyl­len­haal, Carey Mul­li­gan, Ed Ox­en­bould

Paul Dano makes his di­rec­to­rial de­but with this mod­est adap­ta­tion of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. Co-writ­ten with Dano’s part­ner, the ac­tress Zoe Kazan, it tells the story of a strug­gling fam­ily in 1960s Mon­tana through the eyes of its youngest mem­ber. Joe (Ed Ox­en­bould) is a mild-man­nered 14-year-old at the beck and call of his volatile fa­ther, Jerry (Jake Gyl­len­haal). Am­bi­tious re­gard­ing his son, but lack­ing in self-aware­ness as far as his own ca­reer is con­cerned, Jerry gets sacked from the lo­cal golf club where he’s a groundskeeper. His wife, Jeanette (a fire-pow­ered Carey Mul­li­gan), holds things to­gether at home, flat­ter­ing her hus­band’s ego and land­ing a gig as a swim­ming in­struc­tor to help pay the bills, but when Jerry takes a job fight­ing for­est fires in the moun­tains, she and Joe trial liv­ing as a sin­gle-par­ent fam­ily.

“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” muses Mul­li­gan’s in­creas­ingly reck­less Jeanette: one of sev­eral ques­tions pre­oc­cu­py­ing the film. How much money is a man worth? (a ques­tion Jerry asks af­ter be­ing fired); how much love can a man ex­press? (“men love each other, too”, he says, giv­ing his son a kiss); and what kind of a man might a boy be­come with par­ents like these?

Joe is warned of the smoke from the nearby fires, which are de­scribed as pre­ventable, en­cour­ag­ing the au­di­ence to sniff for smoke sig­nals re­gard­ing the film’s cen­tral mar­i­tal break­down, and posit­ing the larger ques­tion of its in­evitabil­ity. Clearly, Kazan has the chops (this screen­writ­ing credit is her sec­ond, fol­low­ing 2012’s Ruby Sparks), but with the ex­cep­tion of Mul­li­gan, whose sharp-edged per­for­mance be­gins to over­power the oth­er­wise muted, rather man­nered film, it feels too neatly mapped as a whole. emo­tional eater who wears “Mold Spice” de­odor­ant and lives alone with his pet dog, Max, in a cave on the out­skirts of Whoville, home to a com­mu­nity of Santa devo­tees. Whoville prom­ises fes­tiv­i­ties three times the size of the year be­fore, but this film steers clear of any sort of cap­i­tal­ist en­dorse­ments. In­stead the fo­cus is on self­less Cindy Lou Who (voiced by The Great­est Show­man’s Cameron See­ley), whose Christ­mas wish is that her over­worked mum (Rashida Jones) feels happy and ap­pre­ci­ated. Sounds like pure sugar, but re­ally it’s just sweet.

Tom Waits pans for gold in the Coens’ The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs. Net­flix

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