“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” feels like the movie Tim Burton would have made 30 years ago if he hadn’t directed “Edward Scissorhands” instead. Director Martin Krejcí’s first feature has the fairy-tale surrealism and penchant for oddball outsiders that distinguished Burton’s work, as well as a similar lighthearted quirkiness that balances the undercurrents of gothic dread. Above all, “Wolfboy” suggests “Scissorhands” for the way it grounds an outlandish figure in credible emotional stakes, making the case for a sincere coming-of-age drama along the way.
The “Wolfboy” in question is Paul (a sullen Jaeden Martell), a reclusive 13-year-old who suffers from a condition that causes fur to cover every inch of his face, for mysterious reasons only revealed in the closing act. The movie, written by trans playwright Olivia Dufault, immediately opens itself to complex readings about the nature of an adolescent coming to terms with his true identity: Sulking through a traveling carnival on his birthday, with his encouraging single father (Chris Messina) by his side, Paul refuses to take his mask off — and when he does, the bullies swarm.
Paul’s dad is ready to ship his son off to a special needs school that may as well be Professor Xavier’s school for gifted children. (The “Have you tried not being a mutant?” moment from “X2” anticipated much about Paul’s journey to come.) Before he has time to fully reject his dad’s offer, Paul receives an enigmatic note from what appears to be his estranged mother, beckoning him to join her in Pennsylvania, and sneaks out the window in a huff. So begins a strange and alluring road trip that finds the confused child careening from circus freak (under the tutelage of an eccentric showman played with over-the-top gusto by a Yanni-like John Turturro) to befriending a trans girl named Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore) and her rancorous, one-eyed older pal Rose (Eve Hewson), who pulls the two into a ludicrous bank-robbing scheme.
Thanks to the delicacy of Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography, and an entrancing score from “Little Miss Sunshine” composer Nick Urata, the movie fuses its quirky twists into a fully realized world, while eccentric chapter headings unfolding against colorful paintings of key plot points enhance the storybook feel. From the Felliniesque exuberance of the carnival to the freewheeling nature of Paul’s evolving outcast entourage, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” pushes beyond the constraints of a typical YA adventure to reach for a darker, deeper look at how ostracized people forge communities through a mutual sense of dislocation.
At times, the movie struggles to unite its disparate tones. Turturro’s peculiar circus boss Mister Silk becomes the central villain, chasing Paul across the country while a police officer trails them both. The movie oscillates from the irreverent outlaw adventure to subtle character drama without finding the happy medium it desperately needs, particularly once it lurches into a messy final act. It does succeed in finding its way to a climactic encounter that’s both apocalyptic and serene — two characters considering their place in a world that wants nothing to do with them, who find some measure of comfort in enduring it all together.
Czech director Krejcí and Dufault avoid didacticism thanks to the sheer gusto they bring to a wide range of settings, from the cramped interiors of an RV to a lighthouse party lit by fireworks late at night. Cinematographer Palermo, who co-directed the Sundance-winning documentary “Rich Hill,” excels at capturing winsome young faces against the ominous backdrops of a harsh adult world. Aristiana makes for an appealing foil to Paul’s moody asides (“So, like, am I supposed to feel sorry for you or something?”), forcing for him to realize that the fur on his face is a gift so long as he treats it as such. “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” embraces that argument with the same level of mystique and empathy that Burton brought to “Edward Scissorhands” long ago. The sentiment still hits home, and it’s nice to have it back.
“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is available on demand and on digital platforms from Vertical Entertainment on Friday, October 30.