The Kids Are Not Alright: Böhm Bares His Fangs In Tepid Feral Frightfest
Children are scary enough without them being feral, and that fear is exactly what Fritz Böhm exploits in this new horror-fantasy feature. As a teenager uncovers the secrets behind her traumatic childhood (confined entirely to one room), her body begins to change in the most unexpected ways, stepping past average puberty into the realm of Rick Baker body horror. Wildling has such a strong cast and intriguing premise that jousts with nonsensical character arcs, lukewarm atmosphere, and images so dark that whatever happened on screen is still a mystery.
Anna (Bel Powley) has spent her life in the attic, in the care of her Daddy (Brad Dourif), always taught that a child-eating monster called the Wildling lives in the woods surrounding the house, and that she must never leave. After she starts menstruating, Daddy gives her daily injections of “medicine” that are eventually revealed to be a chemical preventing the onset of hormonal maturity. When Anna turns 16, she is rescued by Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler), who, along with her younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), help Ellen adjust to life outside and amongst other people for the first time. Though Anna tries to adapt to her new life as school-going, party-crashing teenager, her past trauma starts to re-emerge through nightmares and flash pan hallucinations. As her body rapidly matures to match her actual age, Anna discovers the true nature of why Daddy never let her outside.
Dourif is devilishly sinister yet equally sympathetic, delivering one of the most complex and understated performances of his admirable career. Powley carries the whole movie admirably with her unnervingly curious and (somewhat) sorrowful performance, and couldn’t have been a better casting decision. Her chemistry with Dourif, Tyler, and Kelly-Sordelet feels natural and effortless, and keeps interest high throughout the 92-minute runtime.
The first quarter of Wildling could stand by its own merit as a stellar and unyieldingly disturbing short film about control, obsession and ferality, with Dourif and all three actresses playing Ana at various ages (Arlo Mertz, Aviva Winick, Powley) the only necessary players. When Ana leaves the attic for the surrounding town (which looks suspiciously like Twin Peaks), her initial reactions and interactions with people is expectedly jarring and unnerving. However, this strong through-line ends soon after she moves in with Ellen, the plot falling into an average “new kid doesn’t belong here” high school melodrama. Though this particular arc is short-lived, giving way to a more ludicrous, yet understandable arc involving a secret huntsman society and a “wolf man” (James Le Gros), it changes the film’s tone and visual style so drastically that the second half of the film is subsequently irreparable. During this section, Florian Martin and Markus Baburske employ an ugly gunmetal color scheme, (heavily reminiscent of the Twilight franchise) which is completely out of place with the visual aesthetic of the rest of the film.
Though there are a handful of scenes that manage to rekindle the initial flame the opener had enthusiastically lit (accompanied by some of the best sound design in recent memory), Böhm and Florian Eder’s screenplay devolves into a chasm overfilled with genre cliches and tasseled plot threads without proper development and conclusions (and a recurring impressions that aspects were ripped off Will Byles’ horror video game Until Dawn).
Matthew Rundell and Robb Sullivan’s editing is easily the most consistently well-crafted aspect of the film; hallmarked by fluid pacing and fascinating sequence transitions. However, though Böhm’s direction is succinct, refined, and focused, Toby Oliver’s cinematography is so darkly lit in the night scenes that the majority of the climax was a frustrating flurry of sound effects without much else. Though tonally, visually, and structurally mixed overall, with an unsatisfying final act (and supercilious epilogue), there is much to enjoy in Wildling’s sincere cast and wonderfully weird premise.