Growing up is hard for anyone, but it can be especially so if you are singled out and shamed by the world for that which makes you different. Though many of us have been victims of some sort of bullying or judgment by our peers during our adolescence, the degree to which one experiences that ostracism can be much greater if someone is sufficiently unique. The True Adventures of Wolfboy is a passion project by director Martin Krejcí and writer Olivia Dufault that attempts to capture the essence of growing up different and learning to love oneself, and it succeeds in providing a lovely narrative appropriate for kids that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the dark realities that outsiders face.
Paul (Jaden Martell) is our titular thirteen-year-old wolfboy, suffering not so much from the genetic disorder that causes thick hair to grow all over his face and body as he does from the bullies who insist that he’s the result of his father having sex with a dog. When Paul’s father (Chris Messina) suggests that Paul might be happier going away to a boarding school for kids with physical differences and disabilities, Paul becomes upset and runs away from home to find his absent mother, with only an address in Pennsylvania as his guide. What follows is an episodic adventure – punctuated by gorgeously illustrated interstitial title cards – wherein Paul discovers the true extent to the world’s evils, the depths of his first friendships, and the ability to love himself, hair and all.
Most of the film’s chapters are based around Paul’s interactions with a new person on the road, and while the cast is presented with a touch of magical realism and eccentricity, Wolfboy walks a careful line in keeping the wonderment relatively grounded so as not to distance itself too far from the realities of Paul's social persecution. John Turturro gives an instantly iconic performance as the owner of a carnival who seeks to commodify Paul as a freak, strutting around with a sinister satanic energy that rarely needs to escalate in volume to be intimidating. Eve Hewson plays a roguish eye-patched drifter who teaches Paul the value of shoplifting and refusing to let society define you. The real standout, though, is Sophie Giannamore as Aristiana, a transgender girl about Paul’s age who faces emotional abuse from her transphobic mother and escapes into the persona of a mermaid at a local queer bar, demonstrating just how much she’s had to grow up even while holding to childish pleasures.
Paul himself is less interesting than those he meets on his travels, though this is likely by design, as Martell carries the role with a meek, unassuming air that reflects a lifetime of shame and nonconfrontation. (It is worth noting, though, that issues of questionable representation are at play with a role that could have been filled by an actor with the disorder portrayed by the film.) Dufault’s screenplay is charming, quick-witted, and rich with layers and subtext, exploring the spaces between individuality and the desire to belong. It would have been so easy for each of the people Paul finds along his travels to be static reflections of Paul’s emotional growth, but instead they are alive, each in turn threatening to steal the show. However, as Paul finally reaches the end of his journey, it becomes clear that this shy boy grew to love himself by measures so subtle that it’s amazing how pronounced the difference is.
Throughout the film, many characters refer to Paul as a dog boy, alluding to that quiet, domesticated demeanor that allows others to treat him as lesser and other. Yet the film’s title cards consistently refer to him as Wolfboy, implying wildness, freedom, membership to a pack, and independence. The True Adventures of Wolfboy is about growing into that narratively imposed moniker and refusing to be collared by others’ perceptions. I think Aristiana says it best in that she realized that she has the ability to breathe underwater, and though the world is going to be submerged by the time she reaches adulthood, she will be fine. Paul’s going to be fine, too, and maybe so will each of us who have needed to learn to breathe without air.