It’s often enlightening how seemingly insignificant details can frame how we view a film. “Based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” – however one wishes to phrase a similar conceit – is certainly one of the most common minutiae quietly shifting how we consume a particular narrative, as opposed to something fictional. Perhaps the Coen brothers’ Fargo is the most playful example of deliberately using this gimmick not to fool its audience members, but rather reshape their perspective in a giddily dishonest way. By the end frame, it doesn’t matter whether or not Fargo’s events came from genuine sources, because with that claim of factuality, you’ll have granted the Coen’s “permission to do things [you] might otherwise not accept.”
With Wildling, about a 16-year old girl named Anna (Bel Powley) who begins a long-overdue journey of self-discovery after being held captive her entire life, that singular aspect retroactively forming a new perspective of the viewing experience isn’t necessarily the identities of writer-director Fritz Böhm and writing partner Florian Eder, but rather their gender. Of course, two men in prominent creative positions isn’t a fascinatingly new occurrence, but it’s the story they tell and how it’s told that’ll raise some intellectually-satisfied eyebrows – assuming those eyebrows do belong to a viewer who steadfastly adheres to feminist ideology.
Böhm and Eder follow in the footsteps of past and more recent cult genre favorites, like Ginger Snaps and Raw, that use a body horror framework to signify the personal and social challenges women face when coming of age, though to be fair, ‘horror’ might be stretching the definition. Wildling bears the visual markers of a genre flick, but it hasn’t the tone to match. Instead of focusing on and enhancing for shocking effect the physical trauma Anna progressively endures, it gives greater narrative weight to her increasing confusion toward a world she cannot recognize or fit into, as well as how she copes with her past mistreatment, though that isn’t to say those archetypal body horror moments aren’t in their own way significant.
While others may look upon her physical maturation with fright and disgust, to her they are matter of fact occurrences that may seem terrifying at first but are quickly accepted as an integral part of who she is and what she will become. The story isn’t so much ‘horror’ as it is a dark low fantasy tale, discarding an oppressively dour atmosphere found in Ginger Snaps and Raw while opting for a more vaguely optimistic approach. Though such is in and of itself a refreshing change-up from the bleaker metaphorical works preceding it, one could argue it had to be, given Böhm and Eder are men.
Ginger Snaps, Raw and The Lure all work partially because our knowledge that the writers and/or directors are women grants each gruesome scene of horrific bodily changes and/or mutations an aura of catharsis, that these sequences come from a deeply personal place from which the respective filmmakers intend to heighten and engage with great psychological fears they might have felt themselves. In a male filmmaker’s hands, and without the context a woman at the helm provides, these moments might have come across more exploitative than darkly purifying while ironically exaggerating all that is ‘monstrous’ about female adolescence for the sake of satisfyingly blunt progressive commentary.
It isn’t a matter of skill, but of perspective, though what ought not be ignored is the importance of a film such as this one, written and directed by two men, that moves through its narrative with a more positive approach to body horror conventions, implicitly telling potential adolescent female viewers, particularly in the form of Liv Tyler’s Sheriff Cooper, that they shouldn’t feel ashamed of the changes they feel, while not undermining the effects of patriarchal double standards dictating they should. The latter concept certainly makes its presence known in the form of teenage boy depravity and male authority figures, whether they be Brad Dourif’s Daddy or other local policeman, aiming to tame and control Anna’s wild side because of the alleged threat she presents.
Perhaps appropriately so, however, they are nowhere near significant enough in the story to be considered a primary antagonist, as it would have taken away from Anna’s growth throughout the plot. It’s clear the film prides itself on its ingenious presentation and values – as it should – and the engagement it engenders carries the viewing experience through its fast-paced hour and a half more than any set-piece or quick shot of blood-curdling body horror, even when its latter 45 minutes randomly initiates a thorough descent into B-movie cheese.
The closer we come to Wildling‘s final act, the dialogue and some performances feel stiffer, the visual effects look cheaper, the storytelling goes chaotically awry in one head-spinning instance of non-linearity and the tone makes a hard, even inorganic turn from the contemplative to the melodramatic in an instant. The entertainment value doesn’t entirely drop out, but transforms – hardly poetically so – into something different, though you get the sense sudden laughter isn’t the response Böhm and Eder intended to elicit at any point with their thoughtful, whip-smart reworkings of body horror tropes in tow.
Especially considering how it swiftly breaks away from the direction the first half alluded to, arguably even betraying that direction by appealing to midnight screening crowds thirsting for action, Wildling’s second half may disappointingly do justice to its title, but it never quashes the thematic and philosophical strengths its opening 45 minutes establishes. Even when the narrative succumbs to familiar beats, adding an ironic layer of predictability the title must reconcile, it remains an involving adventure, if for partially unintentional reasons.
Perhaps that’s a credit to Böhm as a first-time director to somewhat fix the mess he and Eder created for themselves abandoning the first half’s intentions, but the next time he earns good will for himself behind the camera ought not come with an asterisk. Though to end on a more positive note, when standing next to genre counterparts Ginger Snaps and Raw, maybe Wildling deserves its own asterisk as an example of body horror, with a symbol key below letting curious viewers know it won’t make them as miserable as the other two.