Love & Mercy

This is the very definition of "summer counter-programming": in the middle of 2015's array of superhero movies, dinosaur blockbusters and the like is this little biopic about an unlikely subject: the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

I say "unlikely" not because Wilson isn't a fascinating or important individual – he is both – but because it's curious to imagine who would feel compelled to see this film based on its subject matter alone.

I hope you do take a chance on Love & Mercy. Cutting between Wilson at the highlight of his creative powers in the mid 1960s and Wilson at the lowest point of his life in the late 1980s, the film's casting of Wilson lookalike Paul Dano as "Brian Past" is absolutely inspired. But John Cusack as "Brian Present"? The mind reels for a second. Cusack looks nothing like Brian Wilson, and with his filmography so packed with recent duds, it's easy to be skeptical about his presence. Yet I for one was won over. Cusack is more committed than he has been in years, and his subtle, wounded work is fine. Dano gets the meatier role as the tortured young genius on the verge of cracking up, but he keeps everything grounded in deference to history instead of playing to the cheap seats.

With a split-personality film like this, one half ordinarily outweighs the other. (Think Julie & Julia, which contrasted a plodding Amy Adams romcom with an effervescent Meryl Streep biopic.) I was quite prepared to favor the 1960s scenes, with their finely-detailed reenactments of Beach Boys recording sessions and parties, but while these scenes are suffused with a wonderful you-are-there accuracy, I actually found the 1980s scenes with Cusack and his costars Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti to be much more affecting. Perhaps because there is more actual drama in them.

Giamatti is great, even in a goofy mid-'80s wig, as Eugene Landy, the quack "psychologist" who became Wilson's legal guardian and kept the musician doped up and cowed. He's an obvious villain, but such self-serving hangers-on sadly do abound in showbiz, so his performance is accurate.

Banks, for her part, was given a thankless role as Wilson's real-life love interest who mostly just sits back and watches him suffer. It's a testament to Banks's charms – and to Pohlad's quiet direction – that the story becomes hers as well. (Pohlad, a producer directing only his second feature in 24 years, clearly favors old-school staging like long takes and two-shots, which allows the audience to decide whether to watch Cusack or Banks, giving their characters equal weight.)

The film has flaws, but they are few: expository dialogue rears its awkward head once in a while, and some viewers won't be able to get past Cusack's stunt casting. But there's so much here that works, even beyond the four main performances. The casting is terrific, especially for the other four Beach Boys. The sound mixing is outstanding (and this detail seems random to mention, but if you see the film, you'll note how important sound is to it). And costume designer Danny Glicker shows a real talent for capturing past fashion as it truly was. (He also did Milk.) In short, the good outweighs the bad, and I definitely walked away feeling like I got to know the real Brian Wilson.