Fairy tales have long served as bedtime stories, but that doesn’t mean they always offer a gateway to pleasant dreams. And WILDLING, a dark and dreamy fable with a thrilling twist of horror, exists squarely in that twilit mindset. The film, directed by Fritz Bohm, remixes familiar genre tropes — about puberty, and finding our true selves, and who the real monsters are — in thoughtful ways. And in the end, it produces a compelling hybrid: a feral fairy tale princess.
The film begins like a story within a story. Daddy (Brad Dourif… so that bodes well) keeps his little girl Anna in the middle of the woods, in a room that is more like a cell than anything else. She stares into the forest with curiosity, her luminous eyes peering through a window with bars on it. There is a shower in the corner, and a desk, and a bed, and she can’t leave because the doorknob is electrified — to keep the Wildling out, as he tells her. Because the Wildling, a ferocious and fanged beast, eats children. This, by the way, is what passes as a bedtime story in Daddy’s house. Like I said: BODES WELL.
Anna spends all of her days hidden away in this room/cell, eating a steady diet of vegetables and sweets, until she eventually grows up into a young woman (played by Bel Powley, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). When she starts her period, Daddy tells her she’s sick — and begins to administer a painful series of injections into her abdomen that only make her sicker. She eventually awakens in a hospital bed in the outside world, where she is thrust into a new reality filled with doctors and police officers who want to understand where this mysterious girl with no last name came from.
Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) is the first friendly face Anna meets, and it’s hardly a surprise when Anna chooses to go home with Ellen while the authorities try to figure out what to do with her. This is one of several moments in the film, like the eerie presence of James Le Gros’s outdoorsy Wolf Man-About-Town character or the order of hunters in the film’s climax, that won’t withstand heavy scrutiny if you’re to think about them too hard. But within the dreamlike logic of this fable, the plot holes never seem deep enough to fall through, and that is a credit to the consistent tone maintained throughout the course of WILDLING.
At Ellen’s house, Anna meets Ray, Ellen’s younger brother who is in her care. And through him, Anna begins to acclimate to life as a normal teenager — a life filled with romance, hamburgers, parties, and pretty dresses. Surging hormones and socialization aren’t the only changes happening to Anna, though, and a violent encounter with another boy leaves Anna on the run and more confused than ever. Just as she was finding her place in the world, she discovers that it may not be the place she truly belongs at all. The terrors of her childhood come to frightening life as Anna unlocks the secrets of her own past in her bid for freedom.
Powley’s Anna is a real delight — she captures a tenacity and curiosity in the character that are so pure. It would have been easy to have Anna wallow in fear and horror at her evolving circumstances (as well as her own body), but the performance and the film as a whole never take that route. Instead, Anna demonstrates a confidence that I would have envied at her age. If, as we’ve had reason to be reminded recently, Frankenstein’s so-called Monster wasn’t the monster at all in Mary Shelley’s classic novel, then this is another twist on that idea. Only here it’s not a crime against nature but a mystery of nature itself that gives us our victim and our hero, all rolled into one fiercely compelling young woman. In the end, anything might be possible in the misty forests of WILDLING — even a happy ending.
WILDLING had its world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Conference. It will be released by IFC Midnight theatrically and on VOD April 13th. *Image: Anna (Bel Powley) / Credit: Maven Pictures*