At first, Wildling doesn't seem like anything special. Confined to a dingy chamber with bars on the windows, Anna (Bel Powley) has never experienced the outside world. Her father (Brad Dourif) brings her plates of vegetables each day but tells his daughter she can never wander out the front door, as she's just too small and the "wildlings" will get her. The man describes these mythic creatures - in that ghoulishly theatrical way only Dourif can - as hairy monsters with razor sharp teeth and claws. The near feral child can only believe her papa; though curiosity still gets the best of her, leading tiny Anna to grab the doorknob and receive a shocking current of electricity up her arm. The girl’s room has become a prison, complete with daily shots from a needle into her belly. There are no "wildlings". This guy's an abusive madman, no different from the maniac who kept Brie Larson and her kid caged inside an underground trap in Room.
Then dad blows his brains out, and the cops come, leading Officer Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) to temporarily adopt Anna while they await DNA testing to confirm if that psycho really was her papa. That means going home and meeting Ellen’s shy, handsome younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), along with a gaggle of local teens. That means learning how to eat hot dogs and French fries. That means boys and curiosity about their bodies. That means having to learn to sleep in a bedroom whose windows don't have reinforced steel in their frames. That means pulling out her teeth as Anna slowly comes apart, experiencing the first signs of womanhood as she morphs into something...else. Something hairy. Something wild.
That's when first time feature director Fritz Böhm's movie gets pretty damn good, as it bombards Anna with all of these senses and sounds, not to mention feelings that bubble up in different parts of her body. Wildling is most certainly a horror movie, essentially playing like a straight-faced, female-fronted Teen Wolf reboot that attempts to formulate a supernatural metaphor for the overwhelming hurricane that is adolescence. Wildling finds a steady middle ground between tenderness and sheer terror that's somewhat difficult to keep up with, the conflicting emotions just as confusing for the viewer as they are for our young protagonist. But that's what makes the movie so effective: it essentially places us in the shoes of a teenage girl who's not only coming to terms with basic socializing and libido-igniting horniness simultaneously, but also potentially transforming into the very thing her dad warned could come through the window and eat her at night.
Bel Powley is incredible as Anna, her big blue eyes becoming just as menacing as they are inquisitive in this weird new world. She graces the sheltered girl with a set of charms that are uniquely her own, and though Anna’s demeanor seems strange, she's still oddly warm and welcoming. However, when the girl’s animalistic side begins to take over, Powley keenly conveys the terror Anna senses in her stomach, even as we cringe at the increasingly violent ways in which these savage sensations manifest themselves. All of these elements come together to create a character that's multi-dimensional and never less than captivating to follow. The English actress is just stunning, taking Böhm's movie and placing it upon her narrow shoulders, never intimidated by the notion of carrying every single scene.
If Wildling stumbles, it's when the movie transmutes into a full-fledged creature feature, its central players lost out in the wilderness. It's not that this final third is poorly executed - in fact, the picture’s rather beautifully composed, as Toby Oliver (Get Out, Happy Death Day) perfectly paints the forest in shades of frightening black - the character moments are just much more engrossing than a rather lengthy series of chase set pieces. Still, this is a small price to pay for a first genre feature that sports this much raw, focused talent behind the lens. It's then that you realize your initial impression of the first twenty minutes were actually a ploy, so that Böhm - who also co-wrote Wildling with Florian Eder - can pull the rug out from under you in one of the more satisfying ways possible. This is the tale of a feral woman that would make Jack Ketchum proud (though he'd still probably complain it should be more perverse). That's a pretty high compliment.
Wildling will continue to screen at SXSW Monday, March 12th, at the Stateside Theatre (9:30 PM), and Thursday, March 15th, at the Paramount Theatre (12:30PM).