'WildLike': Napa Valley Review

Wildlike Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Napa Valley Film Festival

Wildlike Still - H 2014

You can run, but you can’t hide from yourself

A teenage runaway seeks sanctuary in the Alaskan wilderness in Frank Hall Green’s debut feature

Hiking through Alaska’s backcountry has a healing influence for two emotionally scarred loners in WildLike, a modest low-budget drama that profitably capitalizes on a variety of spectacular outdoor locations. A restrained perspective on some potentially volatile subject matter and a couple of nuanced performances could help the film gain traction with sympathetic audiences and outdoor enthusiasts alike in limited release or via VOD.

When Mackenzie’s (Ella Purnell) in-recovery mother decides to temporarily relinquish custody of her 14-year-old daughter, it appears to be yet another in a series of misfortunes to befall the teen following the death of her father a year earlier. Shipped off from Seattle, Mackenzie arrives in Juneau to live with her father’s brother, although she hasn’t seen her 40ish single uncle (Brian Geraghty) since she was a child. His awkward and disproportionate enthusiasm over her arrival is quickly revealed as thinly veiled predatory behavior after he sexually assaults her and emotionally blackmails Mackenzie into silence.

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Faced with a choice between an unending nightmare of abuse and the uncertainties of relying on her own meager resources, Mackenzie flees, seeking shelter in an apparently empty Juneau motel room that’s in fact occupied by Renee Bartlett (Bruce Greenwood), a 50ish recent widower visiting Alaska with plans for a multi-day wilderness trek into Denali National Park, which he visited for many years with his deceased wife. Mackenzie flees after he surprises her hiding out in his room, but circles back and follows him to the park because she suspects that he has plans to eventually travel to Seattle and that she may be able to somehow follow along.

Arriving at the trailhead into the backcountry, Bartlett is more than a bit surprised to find Mackenzie tailing him, but when he can’t shake her on the trail, he’s forced to give her shelter for several days of backpacking, since she’s completely unprepared for the wilderness trip. Their initially wary interaction becomes somewhat less leery after a close encounter with a wild bear, but Bartlett makes little progress deciphering Mackenzie’s intentions until a chance discovery reveals the extent of her desperation. 

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Essentially a two-hander, Frank Hall Green’s feature relies primarily on the strength of young Purnell’s performance to carry the film. By turns both tough and vulnerable, she conveys Mackenzie’s inner turmoil and frequent desperation with both empathy and economy, skirting the ever-present pitfalls of over-emoting. Green’s realistic, efficient script avoids capitulating to the melodramatic treatment that so often plagues this type of material, remaining tightly focused on Mackenzie’s struggle for survival and healing.

Greenwood’s quiet, assured performance conveys volumes of unspoken emotion with well-tuned facial expressions and body language that replace any number of unnecessary speeches or confrontations. Geraghty and Ann Dowd, as a kindly stranger who befriends Mackenzie, both get good mileage out of brief appearances. Green’s fluid directing shows a natural affinity for Alaska’s wide-open spaces, lyrically framed by Hillary Spera’s widescreen 35mm cinematography.

Production companies: Killer Films, Green Machine Films, TandemPictures

Cast: Ella Purnell, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Ann Dowd, Nolan Gerard Funk, Diane Farr

Director-writer: Frank Hall Green

Producers: Julie Christeas, Schuyler Weiss, Joseph Stephans, Frank Hall Green

Executive producer: Christine Vachon

Director of photography: Hillary Spera

Production designer: Chad Keith

Costume designer: Annie Simon

Editor: Mako Kamitsuna

Music: Daniel Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans

Casting: Stephanie Holbrook, Douglas Aibel

Sales agent: Preferred Content

Not rated, 98 minutes