A movie to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness
When I first heard about The True Adventures of Wolfboy in an email, my editor described the film as “a true lesson in empathy,” which left me intrigued. After watching the trailer, there was a worry on my part that the film could go the way of Ratboy; the 1986 comedy/fantasy film directed by and starring Sondra Locke which centered on a kid who was part rat. The film was a colossal bomb which all but killed Locke’s career as a high-profile filmmaker due to the way it played to so many of the decade’s worst stereotypes at the expense of the story’s humanity. First time director Martin Krejic’s film never even sets foot into the many pitfalls Ratboy did however. On the contrary; it accomplishes everything Locke’s film believed it could. The film shows children being children from all angles, it rips your heart out before gently mending it back together and emerges not just as a lesson in empathy, but very nearly empathy personified.
Paul (Jaeden Martell) has lived a mostly lonely life thanks to a rare genetic condition which causes him to be covered in thick hair all over his body. Despite being raised by a loving father (Chris Messina), Paul is fed up by the constant bullying from local kids his age and the idea of having to attend a school for children who are “special cases.” After receiving a package from his absentee mother (Chloe Sevigny) containing a map leading to where she is currently living, Paul decides to embark on a road trip which will bring him into contact with a variety of characters including a malicious carnival owner (John Turturro), a transgender teen (Sophie Giannamore) and flaming-haired vagabond (Eve Hewson), all of whom will help Paul discover himself.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy is a small indie drama consisting of a number of recognizable actors, but no real stars, nor a particularly action-driven plot that would depend on an array of visual flourishes in order to exist. And yet it’s the film’s technical aspects which make it feel magical, ethereal and at its most alive. For starters, the film is gorgeously photographed with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo managing to find the right look to give the whole affair the feel of a fairy tale mixed with the truth of the real world. Aspects of the former really come alive during the various chapter introductions, which not only signal the occurrence of a new experience for Paul, but do so through some breathtaking illustrations that are vibrant and dazzling in both appearance and significance. Equally as beautiful as the film’s look is the script. The lines in The True Adventures of Wolfboy contain one poetic pearl of wisdom after another, all of which manage to serve the story while making sure its earnestness never ends up talking down to its younger audience. “The world is gonna be mean to us, no matter what we do,” a side character tells Paul at one point. “So we can’t afford to be mean to ourselves.” The film also has a way of expressing strong emotional beats simply through actions and symbols such as the full-length mirror in Paul’s bedroom which has colorful splotches of paint so he can avoid looking at his face, this father’s beard which shows another sign of support for his son, and especially in a third act twist which pulls one of the most positively emotional gut punches of the year.
Yet it’s perhaps the themes of The True Adventures of Wolfboy which help the film to really stand out as a true piece of empathetic cinema. Virtually every young character central to the film’s story is shown to have some sort of feature (for lack of a better term) which makes them stand out in the eyes of the outside world. Aristiana (Giannamore) is known as Kevin by her mother who (one gets the feeling) is not on her side, while rumors of the reason behind Rose’s (Hewson) eyepatch are many. Yet there’s true inspirational beauty in the way these characters have claimed their physical differences and have turned them into calling cards of sorts; one of the many significant elements which make them them. It’s watching how this way of thinking and existing influence Paul to embrace who he is rather than continue to be dominated by the one aspect of himself which has symbolized his existence up until now. In a roundabout way, his unexpected and eventful road trip has given Paul the experience his dad wanted him to have. Only instead of being sheltered by the walls of a school hidden from society, he’s instead learned from others like him who have been able to exist in society as nobody but their true authentic selves. The Adventures of Wolfboy doesn’t outright preach or force lessons down its audience’s throat. Instead, it simply presents a collection of colorful characters, each with their own oddities that are claimed and owned to the point where they don’t feel like oddities at all.
Martell has put in a collection of impressive work in a wide assortment of titles, from It, to Knives Out. Here he is front and center, giving a performance so nuanced and tender, it highlights the wonderful script’s heartbreak and humanity even more. Messina likewise gives one of his most superb turns as a loving father who may not have all the answers, but is doing everything he can to make sure his son knows he’s loved. Giannamore is a wonder as Aristiana, proving both a delight and an old soul, oftentimes both in the same scene, while Hewson is a true firecracker as Rose, giving the movie a real spark when it needs it. Sevigny is talented enough that she can walk into the film late in the game and easily hone in on its poetry with some strong moments and Turturro certainly makes for a standout villain by not going too large, choosing instead to slowly reveal his character’s true menace as the film goes on.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy is not a perfect film, in spite of the many, many elements pushing it towards such a status. At 88 minutes, the film feels too brisk, especially given how beautiful and eye opening Paul’s journey is shown to be. A good handful of well-made scenes could have easily been given more room to play out, allowing the audience more time with these genuinely interesting characters. On a more serious level, a number of scenes featuring some of the younger characters engaging in somewhat reckless behavior comes across as more disturbing than winsome. Actions such as attacking a parent with a heavy piece of plywood or holding up a string of convenient stores take away from the poetry and beauty of what is otherwise a magical film experience. Quibbles aside, The True Adventures of Wolfboy is powerful enough in its meaning and execution to leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it thanks to the way it presents characters who embrace their differences as attributes and remind each other, as well as everyone watching, that no one is truly alone.