A blossoming teenager uncovers the dark secret behind her traumatic childhood.
You’re talking to your friends and when you bring up – I don’t know – Happy Death Day – you’d probably try to sell it off as Groundhog Day meets Scream, perhaps.
Well – here’s a doozy of a combo for my latest pitch.
With puzzle pieces from your favorite werewolf flick, some character inspiration straight out of Jodie Foster’s Oscar-nominated performance in Nell, some hunting sequences reminiscent of First Blood (of all things), a bit of Cronenbergian “body horror” and some good old-fashioned “wild woman” fare similar to Lucky McKee’s The Woman – Wildling basically has it all.
Sound intriguing? Well read on, and you’ll see just how intrigued I was.
Teenaged Anna (Bel Powley) lives a very restrained existence. She’s been locked in her small attic room by her loving father (Child’s Play’s Brad Dourif), basically since birth. She knows nothing of the outside world, but longs to be out there – not for socialization per se – and not to escape. She wants to be outside to experience the great outdoors. Something inside of her knows that she belongs there. So when the day finally comes (via a terrible tragedy) – she is instead thrust into a high school environment, a small town life and exposure to anything and everything new. She’s taken in by a local sheriff named Ellen (The Strangers’ Liv Tyler – who produces here) and Ellen’s younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). All the while, Anna feels new urges growing inside of her – as her body begins to mature.
The casting of the three young ladies who portray Anna at different ages is nothing short of brilliant. So many times in film, you’ll never quite buy the actors meant to show a character at various times of life. Whether it’s an attitude, a slight change in eye color or body language – it’s a challenge to get it just right.
But Arlo Mertz (billed as “Very Little Anna”), Aviva Winick (billed as “Young Anna”) and the film’s lead – Bel Powley couldn’t have been better choices. The progression through Anna’s various ages is seamless.
And as for Powley’s lead performance – casting directors take note (not that she’s low on credits – just that she should be working forever). She captures so many lovely levels of Anna’s journey. We can feel the character’s confusion, fear and hunger. Her physicality (particularly later in the film) is mighty impressive.
Liv Tyler provides a very subdued performance. Of course, Ellen’s a professional law enforcement officer, so one naturally expects some emotional restraint. But you absolutely see and feel Ellen’s concern (and yes, curiosity) when the character interacts with Anna. We don’t get much history on Ellen and Ray’s past, but there’s clearly a deep need for Ellen to “mother”. And Tyler shows off this longing in every scene.
Nearly overtaking the brilliance of Powley’s performance is Dourif’s work as Anna’s father. The extended prologue where we get the first inklings of who Anna is – is absolutely Dourif’s time to shine. Despite his character’s history with little Anna – there’s still a genuine love for her. Dourif is a whiz at showing multiple emotions at once. He knows who Anna really is, so while he clearly cares, there’s always an underlying fear present.
Not everything was hunky-dory for me. While it was nothing detrimental, I did take issue with some of the pacing in the second act. There is a clear shift in the film’s trajectory, as Anna continues her journey of self-discovery. But perhaps the change wasn’t as smooth as hoped. As the film moves into it’s third act and the climax – it completely rallies and any pacing problems are soon forgotten. However, they’re still there.
I’m completely on the fence as far as further explanation. On one hand – I wanted just a tad more understanding of what a “wildling” is. Obviously, audience members (myself included) can fill in the gaps with the information provided. And of course, I never want to be spoon-fed. I’ll just complete the thought by saying that the verdict is still out for me – whether or not the story gave me everything I needed/wanted – explanation-wise.
My only other “complaint” (you can barely call it that – more of a question, I guess) revolves around some of Dourif’s character’s motivations. There’s a shift in the character’s outlook on life and it didn’t quite ring true for me. Again, it didn’t result in the loss of one complete star (or anything of the like) in my overall rating of the film, but it stood out to me. A justified question.
The film is beautifully shot. Filmed in upstate New York, the locations look almost foreign. The fact that a US location looked so stark and cold, unique and yes – foreign – perhaps owes something to the film’s German director and co-writer Fritz Bohm and Aussie cinematographer Toby Oliver (the camera eye behind last year’s runaway hit, Get Out). However you want to justify it – the film is a visual powerhouse.
Visual effects are fantastic. Make-up and gore effects work perfectly. It’s a touching and powerful (never overbearing) score from Paul Haslinger (Fear the Walking Dead). In fact – if I’m looking at all of the technical components, it’s simply a matter of “checking them off” as I go. Everything’s intact. Everything’s professional. Everything’s beautiful. ‘nuff said.
There’s some true emotion present here. Once you know Anna’s history, you’ll truly root for her as the film goes on. The very broad theme of the film is that we should let people (of any and every kind) be who they truly are. A far-reaching idea for so many marginalized groups – and it’s not lost on me. It’s always a treat to see a genre film tackle issues deeper than just scares and bad character choices.
A fun bit of trivia: Phantasm II’s James Le Gros appears in a small role as a mysterious mountain man.
With wonderful cinematography and fantastic effects from every department – Wildling is a performer’s paradise, touting strong acting-work from a recognizable ensemble.
While it’s still early in the year – I reckon that Wildling may just find a spot in my Best Horror of the Year wrap-up, come December. Stay tuned! And of course – watch this film.
Wildling is now available on DVD/Bluray on various VOD platforms.