DCIFF Review: Wildlike
A genre-defying film with an unmistakable indie spirit, Frank Hall Green's directorial debut, Wildlike, is a wonderful viewing experience that is both breathtaking to look at and refreshingly optimistic. Much like one of its central characters, the film seeks to quietly meditate on grief and explores whether it is right to accept tragedy and move on or defiantly hold on tight.
At the center of Wildlike is Mackenzie, a 14-year-old girl played by adorable up-and-comer Ella Purnell, who is plucked out of her comfort zone and plopped into the isolated Alaska coastline. It is difficult to tell at first why she is going, and Purnell's performance shares very little about what is going on in Mackenzie's head. They might come slowly, but the reveals do come.
Mackenzie's father died about a year ago and she is sent to live with his brother, her uncle. She receives him coldly, clearly uninterested in spending any time with him -- she only agrees to check out where he works so she can use the computer -- and even less interested in living in Alaska, saying that it is too cold, but with the implied subtext that the temperature is not her only complaint. The uncle is played by Brian Geraghty of Boardwalk Empire and Ray Donovan. His baby face and pale skin come in handy in his character as the strangely kind, distant relative from the middle of nowhere, making his repeated gifts and uncomfortable compliments hit that much harder.
When Wildlike becomes more than just a teen coming-of-age or family drama is when, one night after playing frisbee and remarking how Mackenzie must drive the boys crazy, her uncle walks into her room in the middle of the night, slowly sits on the edge of her bed, lifts the covers and climbs in. The way Mackenzie just lies there, eyes half open but completely empty, is the most haunting component of the scene. It is as if she is far less surprised about what is about to happen than we are, soaking the situation in indifference. Did he mention his intentions off camera? Does she want him to come in on some level? Is this even the first time?
The first act is marked by superb editing and framing, which make the objectively banal house take on an eerie personality, and make the villainous predator seem just as vulnerable as his prey. But mostly it is marked by a really alluring lack of characterization. For viewers, it is easy to become intrigued by and protective of Mackenzie but not because she is relatable or otherwise sympathetic. It is because she is a blank slate, like an expressionless puppy that you can't look away from because you are always trying to figure out what it is thinking. After a few scenes in which she is visibly depressed and subsequently runs away into the Alaskan wilderness, it is clear what she is thinking, but still not where it is she really comes from. Over the course of the film, it all makes more sense, especially regarding her mother and where exactly she wants to run away to. But this is not explained too fast. One of the greatest strengths of Wildlike is that its pace of revealing crucial story details is patient and relaxed. It reflects Green's discipline as a writer that he trusts his audience to be patient enough to pick up the pieces as they come.
What's great about Wildlike is how smoothly the dynamic changes, with palpable sexual tension and music that paces the action's progression only making up the first part of the movie. The film then transitions into a combination of a buddy road movie and a chase thriller, but not as comical or thrilling as those respective genres suggest.
This transition marks where the plot of Wildlike hits the gas. Mackenzie partners up with, or more accurately, forces herself upon, another damaged individual, a hiker paying tribute to his late wife by backpacking through the Alaskan wilderness in Denali National Park.
Mostly, this is where Wildlike becomes unspeakably beautiful. Maybe that's giving too much credit to the movie, but the aforementioned editing, partnered with the photography and location scouting (Green wrote the film partly inspired by an Alaskan backpacking trip of his own) do deserve commendation. It may just be that central Alaska is among the most breathtaking places in the world, and a hell of a place to set a film. Anne Dowd plays a passerby who flies in a personal aircraft around the park. What a joy it must have been to have a sequence from atop the expansive and colorful landscape instead of the all too familiar rocky and glacial coast.
The hiker is named Bart, played by Bruce Greenwood--a versatile icon at the twilight of his fame. Greenwood's celebrity brings an extra dimension to the character, for better or worse. The old adage goes that casting a star saves the screenwriter many pages of writing because the audience already feels they know something about the person they're watching. What Greenwood seems to bring is a sense of formality and grandeur. Not the same grandeur of a James Bond-type, but the sort that derives from his past roles as U.S. president in two major Hollywood films (National Treasure 2, and as JFK in Thirteen Days). Such familiarity in his acting persona may not work in the context of a grieving old hiker, but when he teaches Mackenzie the ways of the woods, it gives him a sense of authority and makes you want to trust his every word.
The goal of the screenplay is to portray the relationship between Bart and Mackenzie as one of mutual consolation of tragedy, but the impression that is left bears more resemblance to something along the lines of an educator and disciple. Mackenzie doesn't have a parent. Bart never had any kids. They are extremely compatible as companions, and the film's charmingly optimistic conclusion is a plea for everyone to find a perfect platonic match. In life, you never know what type of person might come through for you.
Wildlike will have its area premiere at the DC Independent Film Festival on Friday, February 27. Tickets cost $12. The 16th annual DCIFF runs from February 25 to March 1 in various locations in Washington's Penn Quarter neighborhood.