'Wildling': Film Review | SXSW 2018
Fritz Bohm’s debut stars Bel Powley and Liv Tyler in a contemporary creature feature.
As a habitat for unusual creatures, North America’s forests are perhaps best known for Bigfoot sightings, but German-born writer-director Fritz Bohm’s Wildling may be ready to give old Sasquatch a run for his money. Whether representing an unsettling allegory of adolescence or a fortuitous convergence of contemporary social issues, IFC Midnight’s April release will provide a new perspective on themes of female empowerment before carving out a unique niche in home entertainment formats.
The Brothers Grimm, Roald Dahl and other dark fairytale and fantasy sources cast a long and benevolent shadow over Wildling, co-written by Bohm and Florian Eder (who also contributes on visual effects). In acknowledging and celebrating civilization’s savage origins, they ground the narrative in the fundamentals of human biology and psychology while judiciously referencing the established canon of horror archetypes, even if the film begins as more of a twisted thriller than a horror feature.
Growing up alone in a locked attic, Anna (Bel Powley) knows the world only through her barred window and the perspective of the man she calls “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). She’s so isolated that she has no idea how cruel and unusual her situation is, but Daddy explains that his precautions are to protect her from the Wildling, a fearsome beast with knife-edge teeth that snatches and devours children. For years this is the only life that she knows, but as she begins to mature into a teenager, Daddy tells Anna that she’s getting sick and starts to give her injections to help her get better. Daddy blames himself when her condition worsens, however, and he decides to take drastic measures, ending with Anna regaining consciousness in a hospital bed. Suddenly, the world is nothing like she imagined. Held in a bright room full of menacing devices and surrounded by strangers, the only kind face is Ellen’s (Liv Tyler).
Even though Ellen, the town sheriff, separated her from Daddy, Anna doesn’t want to live with anyone else, so she heads off to the home of Ellen until the mystery of her life with Daddy can be resolved. Now free of captivity, Anna has a difficult time adjusting to life with Ellen and her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), preferring to roam the hills and forests surrounding the town, where she encounters a mysterious wolf man (James Le Gros) who lives in a cave. As she spends more time outdoors, Anna senses her body developing unexpected new characteristics that are both thrilling and frightening. After a violent encounter with a hostile male classmate, Anna knows she can’t return to live with Ellen and Ray, but the alternative is almost too terrifying to consider.
Powley replaces two actresses playing younger versions of Anna midway through the first act as teen Anna emerges from her prolonged captivity. Looking haggard and wary, she precisely projects Anna’s inherent distrust of strangers after years of isolation, never entirely warming to Ellen, but responding with hormonal instinct to Ray’s kindness. That is, until physical changes clearly not entirely associated with puberty begin to take over and Powley goes full-on feral, unhesitatingly accepting the challenge of transformation.
Shifting the film into action mode necessitates several leaps of faith to keep pace with the plot as Powley goes crashing through the forest with near abandon. These increasingly intense scenes reveal that Tyler doesn’t make for much of a police officer, although she’s a caring and supportive foster mother for Anna as the girl tries to come to grips with her new life. Horror vet Dourif (the Chucky franchise) conjures a creepy caretaker for young Anna, whose violent obsessions just become more extreme as she asserts her independence.
Working with DP Toby Oliver (Get Out), along with Eder’s design team, Bohm excels at staging the film’s more darkly ominous scenes, but once the action moves into the forest the concluding segments don’t receive the same attention to detail. With a creature as impressive as the Wildling to carry the movie, though, that might not be much of a concern.
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Production companies: Maven Pictures, IM Global
Cast: Bel Powley, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, James Le Gros
Director: Fritz Bohm
Screenwriters: Fritz Bohm, Florian Eder
Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Liv Tyler, Charlotte Ubben
Executive producers: David C. Palmer, Sven Nuri, Lee Stobby, Timothy Christian
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Lauren Fitzsimmons
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Editors: Robb Sullivan, Matthew Sullivan
Music: Paul Haslinger
Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Rated R, 93 minutes