Directed by Fritz Bohm.
Starring Bel Powley, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Mike Faist, Troy Ruptash, and James Le Gros.
A blossoming teenager uncovers the dark secret behind her traumatic childhood.
One thought lingered in my mind (and still hasn’t left) upon watching the uncomfortably inappropriate The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Bel Powley is going to be a major star one day. Fast-forward a little bit to the release of Raw, a French horror flick that combined vegan turned cannibalism antics for shocks but also as a metaphor for coming-of-age wisdom, female empowerment, and sexuality. Simply put, that debut feature was a flooring achievement and one of the best films of 2017. All of this seems like a worthy recipe ripe for telling in more ways, so enter Wildling, a werewolf story from German-born first time director Fritz Bohm (based on a script conceived with Florian Eder) that hits some of the same beats and contains another stellar performance from Bel Powley (she exceeds all expectations whether handling both fish out of water humor or the full-on slice and dice creature tics), but in the end feels mishandled.
The concept is fine, beginning with Anna as a young child locked away in a room under the care of an enigmatic fellow known as Daddy (played by the one and only Brad Dourif famous for voicing the possessed Chucky doll in the Child’s Play franchise), who tells her spooky tales of “wildlings”, ferocious creatures that eat children, ready to chomp away at her if she ever dares step outside. Even when her curiosity gets the better of her by attempting to open the door, a jolt of electricity is sent through to Anna upon touching the doorknob. The man seems off his rocker, far more so when years later Anna is discovered and rescued by the police where doctors learn that she was being injected medicine to stifle her hormonal growth as if to ensure she stayed a child forever.
Following that, officer Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler exuding a warm presence but also seeming to be sleepwalking through the role with a flat voice tone) insists she let Anna stay with her temporarily to avoid the whole foster home process and to teach the teenager about the world. Ellen also lives with her younger brother Ray who is around the same age as Anna and also somewhat of a social outcast at school. Unsurprisingly, they slowly begin to take to one another after bonding, but the believability of the romance is never convincing enough; at best it can be brought into halfway. This is also a major problem considering that the blossoming love is important to the story.
Ray is clearly not the most popular kid among his peers, but too little information is given in regards to making audiences believe he could fall for a girl that he very well knows is morphing further into a werewolf day by day (he bears witness to her teeth randomly falling out and more), especially after an incident that sees her unintentionally murdering another student after a party invitation goes south. Sure, it was one of the kids that took pleasure in bullying him but come on now, those are not signs that someone reasonably sane would continue a developing relationship that is on the verge of becoming physical.
However, a good amount of these shortcomings can be forgiven considering that the film does a serviceable job integrating Anna into normal society all while balancing that with her body changing in multiple ways, becoming a woman and a wildling. The filmmakers don’t stop at giving Anna overpowering strength either, as the sound design amplifies certain noises during close-up shots of her face, effectively allowing the viewer to vicariously share the ability of a heightened sense of hearing (this is executed in a multitude of ways ranging from nature noises in the surrounding forests or simple exercises such as distanced students talking up rumors among themselves and calling her nasty names). Similarly, the photography (Toby Oliver who recently worked on the unprecedentedly successful Get Out) strikes up a haunting atmosphere, especially at night when Anna searches the wilderness and converses with The Wolf Man (James Le Gros) about her past. Also, the makeup effects are fantastic with an old-school vibe, increasingly growing more detailed with every new stage of Anna’s mutation.
The issue is that none of it ever amounts to anything worthwhile; the final act sinks all the goodwill that came before by becoming a werewolf slasher in the woods where Anna takes on a group of characters that, up until the point, has seen so little screen time or personality expressed, that the proceedings end up quite routine and boring. Worse, that cinematography I was just talking up takes a heavy dip in quality with chase sequences so zoomed in on characters that it’s impossible to make out what’s happening even as enemies are killed. Of course, pitch black darkness doesn’t help the situation. If that wasn’t bad enough, the major supporting characters abruptly take a backseat. Yeah, they were underwritten to begin with (Ellen seems to serve no purpose to the plot other than bringing Anna to live with her, which let’s face it, is contrived as not many people are just willingly going to bring in another mouth to feed even if it is from the kindness in their heart), but the last 30 minutes or so feel like a placeholder ending, as if the filmmakers could not find a thought-provoking direction to take the film after initially dealing with the juxtaposition between becoming a woman and beast.
Wildling is by no means a terrible debut film, but as I noticed similarities between it and last year’s masterful Raw, I couldn’t help but wish I was watching that instead. The script needs a reworking to figure out how the third act evolution from character drama into bloody violence can be organic and be relevant to the rest of the narrative with substance. Still, the creature feature does have Bel Powley throwing her all into the wildling role, further proving that one day she will be a major star.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com