“Wildlike” presents a levelheaded, humble, and respectful drama about a controversial subject, wrapped around a road movie that takes full advantage of breathtaking Alaskan wilderness scenery. Even though the story focuses on a teen running away from sexual abuse by a family member, an issue that’s ripe for dramatic sensationalism, it never sinks into excessive melodrama, only to end with unearned pathos to please the general audience with a saccharine emotional release.
Writer/director Frank Hall Green shows a considerable amount of restraint and a deft handle on tone for a first feature. He doesn’t really say anything new about the tricky subject he delves into, and doesn’t really show anything new concerning the Alaskan wilderness that films like “Into The Wild” didn’t already cover, but he manages to construct a solid drama that earns every bit of its handful of emotional payoffs.
To be honest, the premise sounds like a blend of a Lifetime movie and a run of the mill Sundance reject indie from the early ’90s, once again bringing to mind Roger Ebert’s always true saying, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s about how it is about it.” Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is a troubled teenager with a more than sufficient reason to look like she belongs on the cover of “Emo Make-up for Beginners” magazine: Her father just died and her mother is unable to take care of her because she has to be admitted to a Seattle institution for therapy. We don’t get a clear reason why the mother’s institutionalized, but I’m putting all my bets on alcohol or drug abuse.
Mackenzie has no choice but to live with her estranged uncle (Brian Geraghty) in Juneau, Alaska. The uncle character doesn’t get a name in the film or in the cast list, and I think that’s a clever move on Green’s part in order be less specific and approach the film’s issues in a more universal way. People like “the uncle” unfortunately exist all over the world, and giving him a name and more specific character traits might have led the audience to subconsciously believe the film’s plot to be an isolated incident.
At first, Mackenzie has trouble warming up to her uncle, but he gradually wins her trust by showing her around the gorgeous Alaskan countryside and buying her a smartphone. Unfortunately, all of that goodwill shatters in a manner of minutes when uncle sneaks into Mackenzie’s room and takes advantage of her vulnerability. Scenes that depict such despicable abuse need to be executed with an extremely delicate approach. Jack up the dramatic heft, and it looks exploitative, cut down any visual depiction of it and only refer to it in a roundabout way through dialogue laced with innuendo, and it feels too timid and cowardly to make an impact.
In this case, Green finds a perfect balance by giving just enough information for the audience to get the picture, through silhouettes forming around the little bit of light easing from the window, and haunting creaking sounds of the floorboards as the uncle approaches Mackenzie’s bed. The effectiveness of these scenes rely on what we don’t see and hear.
After the uncle repeatedly takes advantage of Mackenzie, the situation leaves her with no choice but to run away to somehow make it back to her mother in Seattle. Lost along the way, her path keeps crossing with a lonely hiker named Rene (Bruce Greenwood), in a way that’s reminiscent of an understandably humorless version of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” until Rene ends up having to guide Mackenzie during her perilous journey through the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness.
The obvious connection between these two characters is that of father-daughter wish fulfillment. Rene is a compassionate and giving man, who’s childless and recently widowed, while Mackenzie is in dire need of a father figure after losing her own, while being horribly betrayed by another male authority figure. A lesser director would have milked that premise for all the tearjerking it’s worth, but Green takes his time developing these characters as well as their relationship. It takes a while before Rene and Mackenzie can even trust each other enough to open up about their lives, which is the way an unusual situation like this would have gone down in real life. By the time a real emotional payoff takes place, the film earns it in spades.
Ella Purnell is a young English actress who audiences might recognize from minor roles in “Maleficent” and “Kick-Ass 2.” She comes into her own in “Wildlike” with an insightful and subtle performance. This is a film where most of the emotional turmoil bubbles under the surface, and Purnell is asked to communicate her pain and confusion without any needless expository dialogue. Bruce Greenwood, on the other hand, proves once again why he’s one of the most respected actors of his generation with a stoic performance that finds the right amount of subtle expression.
I appreciated that even though DP Hillary Spera relies on a lot of handheld shots, it’s never obnoxious or showy like most American indies that attempt a realistic, documentary-like look. The occasional use of jump cuts are used when the story calls for a rise of tension, while long shots of Alaskan scenery are static and peaceful, letting the audience soak in their grandeur. This visual approach should come as a relief for those who were annoyed that they couldn’t enjoy the scenery in “Wild,” thanks to the manic time-jumping editing lifted straight out of “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
“Wildlike” is not a traditional Hollywood feel-good buddy road movie, but a semi-slow burn experience that takes its subject matter and characters seriously while unrolling the central relationship of the story in a refreshingly deliberate pace. It’s for those who like their hiking movies to balance on that thin line between melodrama and arthouse. [B+]