Written by: Fritz Böhm, Florian Eder
Directed by: Fritz Böhm,
Starring: Bel Powley, Liv Tyler, and Brad Dourif
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Discover your true nature.
Werewolves have been the go-to creature for filmmakers to explore adolescent turmoil: it’s a natural fit for a phase of n life that includes wild mood swings, a sense of alienation, and weird body hair. As your body physically transforms, you also become a different person existentially: at some point, I imagine we all feel like weird, misshapen creatures, unable to cope with who we’re changing into. Wildling is the latest film to enter the “werewolf as teen angst” arena, and it does so with a different, somewhat grimmer take than previous efforts in this genre.
Bleakness feels like a priority right off the bat, as we watch a young girl named Anna’s bedtime routine, wherein her father (Brad Dourif) regales her with a twisted fairy tale about “the wildling,” a creature that haunts the nearby woods who eats children. While this seems like a sweet routine, it’s also faintly menacing, as Dourif’s wild-eyed delivery hints at something manic lurking within this man. A tremble in his voice hints at some sort of uncertainty, almost as he’s hiding the truth from this girl, who we soon learn is unable to leave the room. She must be protected at all costs since she’s the last of the children to survive the wildling’s rampage, her father insists, before injecting her with a nightly round of mysterious inoculations.
A staggering cut moves us ahead several years: Anna (Bel Powley), now an adolescent still finds herself confined to the bed, her stomach punctuated by years of needle marks. Her father is as strung out as ever, and she can only look on in horror when he produces a gun and turns it on himself, a shocking act with a silver lining: authorities are alerted about the gunshot, drawing Sherriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) to the scene to free Anna. Now able to experience the outside world for the first time in her life, Anna is understandably awkward in her attempts to integrate with society despite Cooper’s help, as the kind sheriff takes the girl into her home, where she lives with her brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). The boy is Anna’s age, and the two take an immediate likening to each other, a connection that awakens strange desires within her as she discovers who she truly is.
For most of its runtime, Wildling is a tremendous coming-of-age allegory, one that finds Powley effortlessly shouldering a tale that’s equal parts terrifying and poignant—much like adolescence itself. She brings the same offbeat energy that made her so memorable in Diary of a Teenage Girl here, channeling it into another indelible performance capturing a young woman at a crossroads of self-discovery. Her naturally expressive face instills a sense of childlike wonder and awe in Anna, whose every experience—be it major or mundane—is new. Just learning to eat food properly is an ordeal, not to mention the really awkward stuff, like speaking to other people. While many films and performers would go a clichéd route and portray Anna as a completely withdrawn introvert, Wildling rightfully imagines that she’d be a bit more of a scattershot mess: shy at times, but clumsily outgoing at others. Above all, however, she captures the vulnerability of a teenager who (like most teenagers) is just figuring herself out, attempting (quite unsuccessfully) to be comfortable in her own skin.
Surrounding her is a wonderful assortment of supporting players, with Dourif predictably emerging as the most noteworthy. I’m not sure we’ve ever quite appreciated what a remarkable performer he is, but Wildling provides a solid reminder of his immense talents. He’s quite slippery as “Daddy,” a role that finds him wavering between paternal warmth and unhinged zealotry, all while constantly hinting that he holds the key to unlocking the truth about Anna’s identity. Dourif is the sort of actor whose presence naturally envelops the screen, whether he’s telling a bedtime story or revealing sordid secrets from his past. Much of Wildling’s intrigue rests in teasing out Anna’s history, and Dourif is a crucial façade in the puzzle box, twisting and contorting with each revelation, proving to be magnetic every step of the way.
At a certain point, however, it’s fair to say Wildling becomes more enamored with that mystery and slightly loses its focus as a character piece. The film is at its best when it’s genuinely invested in Anna as a teenage girl rather than her status as an otherworldly creature, as director Fritz Bohm crafts a sensitive portrait of an especially screwy adolescence. Anna’s story has familiar pieces that are shuffled around and heightened here: Tyler’s Sheriff Cooper assumes the role of the beleaguered parental figure doing her best to balance her empathy for this strange girl and her duty to uphold the law, while Kelly-Sordelet is the nice guy boyfriend who does his best to be there for Anna, even if he’s ill-equipped to even grasp how wild her situation is. There’s a genuine intrigue in all of this, too, that I’m not sure Bohm trusts enough: Wildling is perfectly sufficient as an allegory that weaves a natural tension through its increasingly fragile character dynamics.
You find yourself wondering how it’ll resolve itself and what insight it might provide in exploring this young girl’s bizarre life, only to watch the film literally wander off into the woods and embrace genre expectations. It’s not the worst turn of events since the climax is bathed in gothic moonlight and features Anna unleashing a blood-soaked fury on the men who damned her to her tortured existence. Her transformation is among the most strikingly authentic werewolf effects in recent memory, too, its bone-crunching physical agony augmented by the existential horror of seeing Powley’s big, haunting eyes persist, even in this inhuman form. Despite all these nice touches, though, something about the climax strikes me as a little bit jagged and inelegant compared to the rest of the film: it’s almost too conventional to provide a fitting, satisfying conclusion, at least on a thematic level.
You could argue that Anna’s fate here is reflective of how women are essentially forced into further alienation by those who don’t understand them, a notion I’m definitely willing to indulge since Wildling banks a lot of goodwill early on with its terrific performances and its commitment to exploiting this genre to tackle a poignant, meaningful story. On the surface, it’s a familiar story one been done a few times, but it takes a different approach from the likes of Teen Wolf and Ginger Snaps, which were obviously a bit more humorous and glib. Wildling is more straight-laced to the point where it finally relents to its creature feature whims, resulting in a chaotic blend of teenage anxiety and throat-ripping gore. Now that I put it that way, maybe Wildling does adequately capture adolescence after all.
Wilding is now available on Blu-ray from IFC Midnight and Scream Factory. Supplements include deleted scenes, outtakes, and a trailer.
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