Fritz Böhm’s Wildling is a tooth-and-nail sensuality tale that’s endearingly genrefied upon first and second acts, but millimeters short of a howlin’ good finish. Woodland legends are told and beastly savages teased, all while coming-of-self complexities of the female experience run a strong thematic current. An adolescent girl who is left to fend for herself against aggressive teenage boys, departed parents and womanly welcomings that are otherwise treated as dangerously unleashed. So much to say while transformation hints are contained, relevant in a world of sheltered realities. Love in a time of hairballs – with much more to show, I promise.
Explorations center around Anna (Bel Powley), who is found heavily medicated and detached from reality. “Daddy” (Brad Dourif) kept her locked away from the world, feeding the child fables about “Wildlings” who’d come and eat her if she escaped into the thick wilderness. Doctors want to shove the scared, forlorn child into foster care, but Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) volunteers to play caretaker until legal requirements state otherwise. It’s Ellen, her new wild-child and crush-worthy brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) – a band of misfits unprepared to face the reality of Anna’s progressing condition.
Take note of how Wildling builds a well-trained first two acts before committing to an otherwise unquestioning finale. Anna’s sexual navigation gives womanhood a primal coating of feral fascination throughout Böhm’s more focused sequences. The “father” who injected chemical cocktails that prevented maturity, the schmucks who pursue her, the nice guy she favors – all until a very creature-feature third act cares more about barking at the moon. Never “bad,” but thematically stunted despite Anna’s parallels to “Wildling” folklore – or how the film defines connections, at least. Subtle dualities are abandoned for furry-faced attacks. Just an expected culmination that’s a little less thoughtful than inquisitive beginnings.
For me, late stumbles have something to do with Brad Dourif’s mountain-man act that he plays with reclusive and deceptive regard. Not the actor’s fault at all, more his second-half retribution arc. “Daddy’s” first on-screen moments are with a tot-sized Anna in her metal-barred “cage,” up until she’s freed by what should have been his last action. Instead, he’s kept on life support only to recover and realize the fault in his ways, turning Wildling from a lawful chase (Anna flees from judicial danger) into the mercenary roundup Böhm ends on. As is, it’s a case of having your emotionally-aware cake but also a second cake baked with blood, physical slashings and animalistic action – and devouring both. Indulgent, but a bit too filling.
The make-or-break factor here is Bel Powley and her transformative performance from captive prisoner into blossomed rosebud. Anna forever will remember Daddy’s manipulative teachings and the life he robbed her of, which doubles as a metaphor for fatherly fears for their daughter’s sexual awakenings. Tyler’s female influence is the introduction into a new chapter for Powley’s wide-eyed curiosity; a sensory overload filled with cute boys and unquenchable hormonal thirsts. It’s such a careful becoming that Powley owns in all its dark mysticism, torn from folklore but with a human, untamed heart.
Also noted is Böhm’s commitment to visuals in Wildling – a slick creature-feature that shies not from bloody material. Be it torn flesh, pulled teeth or werewolf-to-be contortions, horrific designs are no secondary additives. “Daddy’s” Wildling hides not under midnight blankets – be it hallucination or legend in the skin – with presence worth framing. Cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out/Insidious: The Last Key) casts a grim shadow that accentuates severity over womanly feelings and monster makeup alike – which comes in handy given some minimal makeup work at times.
Wildling is a horror-fueled metamorphosis so rooted in parental fears and the freedoms we all deserve to experience. A young girl robbed of her innocence discovers puberty for the first time only to have tinges of The Howling become a reality. We’ve seen sex and horror blur primitive lines before – monsters whose attacks become vaguely erotic in nature – but there’s a sweetness Fritz Böhm hits on behind gnashing fangs. Themes that stretch farther than predatory assertions or comedic wolf(wo)man visions. Final minutes are a bit cop-out in my opinion, but that doesn’t distract from this prickly teenage nightmare that reels us in like bait on a line.
Wildling may swerve last-minute into a less dense finale, but Bel Powley's performance is worth this fierce and untamed coming-of-self arc that's so exquisitely female-centered.