On bedtime stories, coming-of-age metaphors, and Bel Powley's eyes
Wildling IFC Midnight
Director: Fritz Böhm
Screenplay: Fritz Böhm and Florian Eder
Starring: Bel Powley, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Mike Faist and James Le Gros
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 2.39:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The metaphor probably isn't good enough on its own. That's probably a good rule of thumb. And that goes extra if it's a metaphor so common and so obvious that it's practically woven into the fabric of coming-of-age cinematic fairy tales.
Fritz Böhm's Wildling is one of the latest entries in the cinematic tradition of sexual maturation - in particular, the sexual maturation of young women - filtered through the prism of animalistic folklore. In this case, werewolves. Or a werewolf, anyway. The rest have been killed off, at least those in the quiet upstate New York town where the film takes place, its surrounding forest having been purged of their kind over a decade earlier.
It was only compassion that saved one of them. Or maybe weakness. In any case, an infant girl was rescued by one of the very architects of her species' destruction. He's raised her as a daughter ever since, never allowing her outside, routinely keeping her in her place with wild stories of the mythical wildlings. Those gnarled beasts who haunt the night and feast on children. As Daddy (Brad Dourif) tells it, she's the only survivor left; perhaps the only child left on Earth. Her entire world is an attic in a ramshackle house somewhere in the middle of the woods. She has a small window on one side, so she can see bits of the outside world (trees, mostly), but without any sense of how far the obscured horizon goes.
After years of relative normalcy, she tells Daddy that she's begun to feel ... sick. Seeing the blood on her sheets the next day confirms what he already knows, and without any hesitation - as if he's had everything ready to go for years - he brings in a syringe and tells her he's got to give her medicine to make the sick go away. We're going to have to do this every morning now, he tells her. More years pass; sores and track marks line her stomach, and at a certain point Daddy can't take the wretched daily ceremony anymore and he swallows his shotgun.
The police are called, and now-16-year-old Anna (Bel Powley) is discovered, taken to the hospital, tentatively adopted by the town sheriff, Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler), and sent off to high school. For someone whose daily life was the same routine for 16 years, suddenly everything is starting to happen very quickly. Especially now that the hormone inhibitors are out of the picture. She doesn't talk much, but she wolfs down as much red meat as she can get her hands on.
Menstruation is personified by a sudden bloody lip after her first kiss; the gums follow, with her teeth falling out rapidly to make new for those bigger, shinier ones we know are on the way. The sexual blossoming and experimentation descends into violence and confusion before she's even had the chance to enjoy it. A big party at the popular girl's house concludes with an attempted rape that goes about as well as you'd expect an attempt to rape a werewolf to go. Once the body is discovered in the woods the next morning, with her dress buried in the leaves nearby, Anna's brief glimpse at a normal teenage life is already all but over. Which is just as well; after all, her claws are starting to show.
And my, my, what big eyes Powley has. Her great breakout performance in Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl was certainly no fluke. Wildling doesn't provide the same quality of role that Heller gave her, but that just makes her work here all the more impressive. Those wide, intent eyes darting around at a world that's entirely new to her - observing everything, understanding little. In her urgent, yearnful, empathetic performance, she captures the feral quality of a girl whose body is completely at odds with her mind.
Undermining that, however, is the fact that she begins to take command of the film just as it starts to get less interesting. It's the opening scenes - the unknowingly trapped child, the claustrophobic setting, those impossible-sounding bedtime stories - that best evoke the heart of Wildling's darkness. That we have to reconcile Dourif's off-putting but genuine tenderness with the knowledge that something is not only amiss but very, very wrong imbues this opening section with a quiet mystery it can never recapture elsewhere. The film contains clear echoes of Room and, perhaps more tellingly, The Village, with its seemingly benevolent parental authority figures telling children scary stories about the outside world to protect them from it. But while the threat in The Village was - at least in the form everyone understood it - ultimately nonexistent, the threat in Wildling is all too real. It's just dormant.
Though Daddy is suppressing who this surrogate (stolen, really) daughter really is, he believes he's protecting her as well. Or has convinced himself of that, anyway. Seems the townsfolk are the ones who would actually be in danger if she (or any of her kind) got out.
From her very first days in the real world, she begins to suspect - if not understand - their fear of her presence; as she's driven through town, face pressed against the glass of the passenger-side window, the men in town on their porches eye her with suspicion. It could be just her impression of these new strangers; perhaps they always look at outsiders this way. But of course we intuit that at least some of these men know exactly who and what she is, and where she was found, and have an idea why their old hunting buddy never told anyone about the mysterious daughter he kept in the attic.
While Powley and Dourif are both well-cast, their roles beautifully performed, there's a curiousness to the way the rest of the cast shakes out. The character played by Liv Tyler, 41, has a teenage brother. (Certainly not impossible, but c'mon.) That teenage brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), is classically handsome kid with a haircut that says "I'm in a band," but we discover he's a quiet, hunched-over loner who gets picked on, beaten up and stuffed into lockers by ... the school potheads? Including one pothead played by Mike Faist, who has neither the bone structure nor the hairline to be credibly playing a 17-year-old.
Those minor but odd discrepancies speak to the larger fact that this movie has a far stronger command of the relationship between burgeoning wildling and genocidal surrogate father than of anything else in its orbit. And even that relationship takes a bad pivot when the screenplay decides Daddy has somehow survived the shotgun blast to the face and re-inserts him into the plot. Böhm gives us only a rough sketch of the world Anna inhabits - of wildlings and humans both - and unless he were willing to shift gears and push the movie into something else altogether in its back half, he writes himself into a corner, too. He leaves that attic far too soon. Once that opening preamble is over, the story has almost reached its endgame already. Once Anna is out in the open, and her transformation (immediately) begins, there's nowhere else, really, for the film to go.