'Feral': Film Review

Feral Still 2 - Publicity -H 2020
Jason Robinette
A gritty but artful portrait.

A homeless woman prepares for the onset of a blizzard in Andrew Wonder's debut fiction feature.

A portrait of a struggling New Yorker who bites every hand that tries to feed her, Andrew Wonder's Feral follows a homeless woman (Annapurna Sriram) who splits her time between the streets and the filthy nest she has made for herself deep within the city's subway tunnels. Pairing professional and untrained actors to very good effect, the film rises above miserable subject matter largely through the sense of mystery it builds around its complicated protagonist, played brilliantly by Sriram. Infused with social consciousness without ever succumbing to message-movie clumsiness, it has been scheduled for release on an unfortunate day: "Black Out Tuesday" (June 2), when some entertainment companies have chosen to finally join years of protest over police killings of black Americans.

Sriram plays Yazmine — though the young woman will strongly deny that this is her name when authority figures use it to address her, and she seems in the habit of giving fictional monikers to those she meets on the street. Like the nice guy she goes home with toward the movie's start: They meet outside a club, bond over slices of pizza, and shyly wind up in his room, where he plays a surprisingly lovely song for her. Then she contrives to get him in the shower so she can rob him — not just of cash, but of precious LPs, twisting the knife in the poor kid's back.

(One of those records is by Moondog, the outsider musician who was a fixture on Manhattan street corners for years. Wonder weaves many of his compositions into the film's well-conceived soundtrack.)

Yaz has a makeshift underground campsite where she stashes her stolen money, tucked in a coffee can alongside a picture of the mother the film refers to only elliptically until its final scenes. Other big-screen depictions of life in such settings often conjure a precarious social environment, in which squatters must always evaluate whom they can trust. (Wonder is one of those who have made docs on underground life, with a half-hour 2010 film called Undercity; his strong work as DP here benefits from his familiarity with the setting.) But Yazmine's experience of these train tunnels is solitary: She explores with a flashlight while singing to herself, combing through piles of long-forgotten refuse — sneakers, cheap suitcases, syringes — for the occasional simple treasure. (In one scene above ground, she erupts in anger when a privileged preschooler tries to steal her plastic brontosaurus.) She amuses herself with one-person dramatic productions, adopting the personae of more empowered women.

These solo scenes have a certain kind of attention-holding power — especially for viewers wondering when rats will enter the picture — but a script by Wonder, Priscilla Kavanaugh and Jason Mendez knows the best chance of understanding Yazmine is through seeing her interact with others. Ranging from heartwarming to brutal, a handful of extended encounters encourage us to hypothesize about how much of the woman's behavior is who she is as opposed to what circumstances have made of her. Occasional clips from a documentary project, interviewing women whose stories we presume to be true, humanize the experience of homelessness without becoming sentimental or preachy; they also pave the way for the story's end, where Yaz must decide whether she wants to accept the problematic hospitality of charitable organizations.

One resident of the homeless shelter she visits observes, matter-of-factly, that Yazmine is too pretty to be there. Some viewers may agree with that verdict, and have a hard time believing a woman as young and attractive as Sriram could — in the absence of a serious drug or mental-health problem — find herself in this plight. It's a testament to the actor's performance, and to those animating the generous strangers her character encounters, that Feral keeps any disbelief at bay — at least long enough to make us hurt for Yaz, despite the way she treats those offering nothing but goodwill.

Production company: Tomorrow
Distributor: 1091 Media (Available Tuesday, June 2 on VOD)
Cast: Annapurna Sriram
Director: Andrew Wonder
Screenwriters: Priscilla Kavanaugh, Jason Mendez, Andrew Wonder
Producers: Alon Simcha, Andrew Wonder
Executive producers: Rob Baunoch III, Michael Prall, Tara Sickmeier

Director of photography: Andrew Wonder
Production designer: Colleen Dodge
Costume designer: Nina Vartanian
Editor: Jason Sager
Casting director: Sammi Mendenhall

73 minutes