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A 13-year-old with such excessive hair growth on his face that he wears a balaclava at all times sets out to find his mother in The True Adventures of Wolfboy, the myth- and fairytale-inspired directorial debut from Czech commercials whiz Martin Krejci. This Karlovy Vary world premiere has an impressive cast list that includes John Turturro at his hammiest, Chloe Sevigny at her most apologetic and Chris Messina in full-on papa-bear mode, though none of the name actors can do much to overcome the screenplay’s overly familiar — if at one point literally dressed up in circus clothes — take on a shy teenage outsider finding peace within.
Though otherwise competently assembled, this might work best as a rainy Saturday afternoon option for undemanding audiences flicking through the options of the on-demand platform of their choice.
The expressive and gloomy eyes are the one thing you notice immediately about Paul (Jaeden Martell), and not only because the rest of his face (and body) is covered in thick fur. He suffers from congenital hypertrichosis, which has turned Paul into the victim of bullying and has understandably made him weary of crowds and his jeering peers. His dad, Denny (Messina), tries to encourage him to take off his balaclava when waiting for a ride when a traveling carnival hits their former industrial town but this, very predictably, only leads to more resentment from Paul. When he receives a package for his 13th birthday with a map that promises all the answers in nearby Pennsylvania, he sets off on a journey.
Playwright and TV story editor Olivia Dufault (Preacher, Legion) wrote the screenplay, and she divides the film into chapters with names such as “The Dragon’s Dilemma” and “Wolfboy Deals With the Devil,” each getting an illustrated title card that suggests a 19th-century storybook. Though it offers some interesting contrast with the more realistic aspects of the film’s look, such as its post-industrial-town backdrop, it also makes the pic’s metaphors so explicit, it often drains the narrative of suspense and momentum.
It is, for example, perfectly clear from the moment we meet the ponytailed Mister Silk (Turturro) that he’s supposed to be the devil, here disguised as a circus man bent on exploiting poor Paul as a “dog boy” he can display to the masses for money. While a familiar figure from folk tales, this moustache-twirling caricature also clashes with Krejci’s desire to maintain a certain realism, even though the exact era and area in which the tale is set are never quite clear either (it was shot in upstate New York, near the Canadian border). The story is certainly set in a pre-woke America where people still willingly come to the circus and pay money to see a “curiosity” like a hairy adolescent, rather than ensuring on Twitter that Mister Silk would be “cancelled” forever for abuse and — even worse! — “othering” someone with a very medical serious condition.
There are a few lovely if fleeting moments along the way, notably an interlude when Paul finds a temporary safe haven with fellow outcasts Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), a young transgender girl likened to a mermaid, and Rose (Eve Hewson), a pink-haired, eyepatch-wearing delinquent whose armed robberies finance the kids’ desire for junk food and fizzy drinks. But their spontaneously organized birthday party for Paul is interrupted by the arrival of police officer Pollok (Michelle Wilson), who tries to find the escaped child again and perhaps arrest him for some of his mischief.
The internal logic of the screenplay isn’t water-tight. For one, it isn’t clear how all the various parties know where Paul seems to be at all times even though he keeps moving. And there’s a sense about midway through the film that all the stops and the eccentric characters he meets on his trip are more perfunctory — this is what people do on a road trip! — than actually organic or even necessary, especially because Paul’s growing realization about his own identity and how he fits into the world seems to suddenly occur in the final reel, when he meets Sevigny’s character.
The special effects makeup on Martell is strangely reminiscent of the good old days of TV shows like CBS’ Beauty and the Beast, in which Ron Perlman managed to turn a hairy creature into a being with real feelings. Similarly, the young actor (It, Rian Johnson’s upcoming Knives Out) here emotes well enough with his eyes to make his introverted character come alive. He is surrounded by a group of pro actors who are all boxed in by a screenplay that lacks nuance and imagination, though especially Stephen McKinley Henderson, in a small but pivotal role as the father of Sevigny’s character, manages to impress.
Production designer Aaron Osborne (Love, Simon) and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (A Ghost Story) deliver imaginative work on what must have been quite a tight budget.
Production companies: K Period Media, Big Indie Pictures
Cast: Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Michelle Wilson, Stephan McKinley Henderson, Sophie Giannamore, Chloe Sevigny, John Turturro
Director: Martin Krejci
Screenplay: Olivia Dufault
Producers: Kimberly Steward, Josh Godfrey, Lauren Beck, Declan Baldwin, Benjamin Baldwin
Director of photography: Andrew Droz Palermo
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editor: Joseph Krings
Music: Nick Urata
Sales: Endeavor Content
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Rated PG-13, 88 minutes