by Philip Price
Director: Martin Krejčí
Starring: Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina & Sophie Giannamore
Runtime: 1 hour & 28 minutes
A modern fable of sorts, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” feels like it's intended to largely be an allegory while in fact being a pretty straightforward story that seems to have been concocted for the sole purpose of delivering as broad a message as possible about acceptance. What's not curious is that a film with "wolfboy" in the title feels akin to the type of story that might have been told around countless campfires in the past, but what is curious is how a movie with "wolfboy" in the title comes away feeling as poignant and tender as Martin Krejčí's film does. There is a moment barely two minutes into the film after we're initially introduced to Jaeden Martell's Paul and his father, Denny (Chris Messina), as they stroll through a carnival on Paul's birthday that efficiently places us inside the perspective we're meant to inhabit for the rest of the story. Paul is a 13-year old boy whose biggest fear isn't the onset of puberty, but rather dealing with the fact his body has been covered in hair since he was a baby. This is actually the result of a rare disease called Hypertrichosis AKA Werewolf Syndrome and it has forced Paul to wear a ski mask for the better part of his life in order to conceal the congenital disease. Paul doesn't want to be at the carnival and in fact thinks that because it's his birthday he should have final say on what they do, but his father knows were it up to Paul he would spend all day in his room, alone. As Denny describes a ride to his son called "the dragon's dilemma" (which is not coincidentally also the name of the first chapter in Paul's saga) they are approached by three local boys around Paul's age. The boys claim to be Paul's friends - which brightens his father's face - but it quickly becomes apparent they're only bullies looking to get a rise out of Paul and Denny. They make their jokes and quickly run away, Denny immediately demanding their names as if already planning retribution via their parents, but it is Paul's response that highlights the moment and reminds the audience who isn't aware they even needed reminding that just because this is the first abusive encounter we've seen Paul endure it is far from the first or last time he will have to experience as much. When Denny asks for the names Paul simply responds, "They don't have names." Such provocations and badgering have been aimed in Paul's direction for so long now the enemies don't even have names or faces. They just exist, like weeds in a garden, and the moment you try to eradicate them twice as many take their place. This is heartbreaking, sure, and the interaction rings as such between Paul and his long-defeated dad, but this also tells us why - if we couldn't already surmise and sympathize with as much - we'll come to find out that Paul is kind of a jerk. Immediately dropping the expectation that our protagonist is a noble character who forges past life's biggest barrier to overcome the odds allows Olivia Dufault's (“Legion”) screenplay to take us on a rather dark, but simultaneously uplifting journey where the story beats and characters feel neither trite or absurd despite the outward facade that would have you believe as much by placing the word "wolfboy" front and center.
So, Paul is a young man who openly hates who he is and Denny is a father lost as to what to do next in order to help his son. There is some clear tension between Paul's father and mother who Denny doesn't like to talk about and who Paul has never met. This leads to Paul receiving a mysterious package on his birthday; a gift that contains only a map with the words "when you're ready there is an explanation" written on them and a charted course to an address in Pennsylvania. Paul quickly escapes he and his father's house in upstate New York and begins looking for ways he might make it to who he assumes is his mother. This leads Paul back to the carnival grounds where he encounters John Turturro's Mr. Silk. Silk is the ringmaster of this small production of carousels and tilt-a-whirls and immediately sees the potential in Paul. Like the circus sideshow performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Silk sees the dollar signs in advertising Paul as a freak. Paul isn't in love with the idea, but he needs cash to buy a bus ticket, so he succumbs to the pressure only to ultimately feel betrayed by Mr. Silk and exact revenge upon he and his carnival in ways that will place Paul on the run and Mr. Silk on his trail along with the detective who has now begun a search for the missing wolfboy after Paul's father realizes what has happened. It is this sequence of events and odd circumstances around Paul's existence that propel our hero into the archetypal road trip movie scenario where, while on the run from those chasing after him, Paul comes into contact with the people and experiences that teach him the lessons he desperately needed to be taught, but was never going to learn by staying cooped up in his room or under the thumb of his well-meaning, but dissipated dad. Chief among these new influences is Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore) who fancies herself a mermaid and even has the wigs and costumed fins to back it up. After sleeping in Aristiana's dog's house one night, this new friend - who more or less embodies everything Paul isn't when it comes to confidence and self-acceptance - indoctrinates our hero into her world and introduces him to fellow misfits like Rose (Eve Hewson) who wears a pink eye patch for reasons unknown and fancies the attitude the patch brings with it that allow her to embrace the more rapscallion-like tendencies of her personality. Place all of this into a brisk, but enduring eighty-eight minutes and what you have is a fairy-tale essence with some surprisingly grand significance.
It is in the character of Aristiana that we find the movie’s heart and soul for, if you'll recall when I stated that for an allegorical fairy tale “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is actually pretty straightforward, this was in reference to how Dufault positions this character in her screenplay and how Krejčí uses her to not so much show Paul "the way", but more to show him "a way" in which he can lead a satisfying and fine life while also providing something both characters desperately needed: a genuine friend. All of that said, going forward this review will contain what some may consider spoilers, so...fair warning. Sophie Giannamore, the actor playing Aristiana, has been openly transgender since the age of 11 and plays to that experience in the film. As mentioned, Aristiana is completely confident in who she is and who she was meant to be even if her mother and the Gods disagree. She escapes from the world that consistently turns its back on her by concocting performances that seemingly allow her inner-most expressions and feelings to manifest in an act that she presents on stage at the bar that the aforementioned Rose also frequents. Upon initially meeting Paul one of the first things she asks him (and may I remind you that Paul is kind of a dick) is if she's supposed to feel sorry for him. There are no questions about his appearance or what or why it happened (though there is a nice jab involving a squirrel that's pretty funny), but instead Aristiana is most intrigued by why he's on the run and what has forced Paul into his current situation. There is some exposition in their dialogue explaining why Paul can't simply shave the excess hair, but even this is sustained by the juxtaposition of Aristiana's mom having just cut off all of her hair; an act that is just as tragic for her as Paul not being able to cut the hair from his face is for him.
Paul and Aristiana quickly form something of a fascination with one another as the way in which Krejčí slowly unpacks the truth of Aristiana's life and how far she's come to be who she is at the moment she meets Paul is done in a beautiful fashion. Even if an audience member were to typically be disheveled at the thought of someone's identity differing from their biological identifiers Krejčí's approach to the material allows room for sympathy and understanding in a way where there is no room for snap judgments or easy dismissals. Completely assured of her female identity, despite the cruelties of the world, it is Aristiana's self-worth that prevails. By making the supporting character rather than the lead the "noble hero" “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” doesn't ask for the sympathy Aristiana garners, but instead shows her as the strong, capable individual that teaches Paul to view his own condition differently and accept himself. The general thought would be that our hero would find someone he can relate to and they'd teach one another how to overcome the obstacles life will throw at them simply for being who they are, but by slyly making Paul's experience a metaphor for the transgender experience and then adding a strong transgender character in that supporting role the film not only works as a fable conveying a moral, but a fairly blunt (re)presentation of why - no matter what you believe is right - there's no reason to be a jackass to one another.
Needless to say, for such a compact running time Krejčí's film has a lot going on as we haven't even touched on the additional themes that emphasize the need for these characters to come to terms with who they were meant to be while having the strength to recognize that is not who they were destined to be. Because of the shorter run time and the inherent structure of the film though, it does feel as if Krejčí was forced to make some serious cuts which - while enhancing the fable element - does somewhat take away from the "grandness" of the adventures the titular character and his cohorts happen upon. This is largely made more apparent by the fact the film is broken down into seven chapters and while these begin in what are 20 or so minute intervals they become increasingly shorter and more concise as the film draws near its end. The cutting room floor also seems to rear its ugly face most egregiously in regards to Turturro's character whose antagonism is more present than the story seems to demand it be as the path Mr. Silk follows doesn't really add up or make sense in terms of his motivations. It seems as if Mr. Silk was meant more to be this character that haunted the mind of Paul, reminding him of the worst things that could come from his appearance rather than an actual, physically opposing force that remains in pursuit of him through to the third act. It's difficult to say what Turturro's arc might have been in the original script or cut of the film, but it has either been reduced so much or simplified so extensively that the character (and Turturro's fantastic crazy face) amount to little real impact here.
What does assist in the transition from one chapter to the next is Nick Urata's score as it balances the whimsical with the more venturesome sense of Paul's "quest" to find his mother. The score is also used effectively under Paul's voiceover that serves to also bridge the gap between one sequence and the next as we listen to Paul contemplating what questions he might ask his mother were he to ever meet her face to face. As an aside, while the score is certainly a facet of the film that works for it Krejčí also has this repeating motif where characters lip sync with these wistfully nostalgic songs playing on the radio. I don't know that it's meant to supplement any main ideas, but it's a distinctive touch and charming as hell; ultimately only serving to reinforce the dreamy nature of the film. Finally, if you're wondering why Chloë Sevigny's name is on the poster, but hasn't been mentioned in the review thus far I'll unsuccessfully attempt to conceal her role in the film by saying she only appears in the third act. Naturally, she brings something of a soothing tone to what is an otherwise anxious encounter ultimately exemplifying a line Hewson's Rose says earlier in the film about how, "runnin' around like this-it's probably all going to end in tears." Sevigny's Jen has lived with regret for a long time and hasn't forced herself to reconcile the fact that when she stopped running she didn't necessarily like where she ended up. And while this somewhat symbolizes one path Paul could follow this is not the most important thing Paul learns while in the presence of Jen. Instead, what we hope Paul takes away from this encounter is the pearl that, "the world's gonna be mean to us no matter what we do, so we can't afford to be mean to ourselves."