Fritz Bohm’s directorial debut seeks entry into the canon of films about girls awakening to their own devastating powers upon their first menstruation cycle. Wildling, which follows a girl who’s held captive in a basement until she’s a teenager, stuns with occasional breathtaking imagery, sometimes experimenting with what looks to be hand-drawn storybook illustrations digitally animated. But the attention paid to images does not translate to character development, story or dialogue, leaving little emotional resonance, while making me seriously wonder if the men telling these stories understand much at all about female sexuality.
With little in the way of story, Bel Powley’s expressive blue eyes are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting. She plays Anna, the captive girl, whom we meet as a very small child, played first by Arlo Mertz and then Aviva Winick as she ages, until Powley takes over. Every night, “Daddy” (Brad Dourif) tucks in Anna, and every morning, he bathes and feeds her, all the while telling her scary stories of the wildling, a creature with sharp, black nails and long, cutting teeth that has eaten all the people — except Anna and Daddy. All’s well and fine until Daddy finds blood in Anna’s sheets, and then he restrains her and injects her with something to stop her periods.
Eventually, Anna’s discovered and sent to live with policewoman Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) and her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), which brings this fairy tale into the reality of a small, wooded town, with high school crushes and house parties. Or at least teen-movie reality, where we know the bad bully dude Lawrence (Mike Faist) is bad cuz he’s lifting up girls’ skirts and locking nerdy Ray in rooms and (gasp) doing drugs. The second Lawrence showed up onscreen, I knew he was going to try to rape Anna and that Anna, in her retaliation, would prove to be a wildling.
While this level of predictability drains all excitement from the story, what is most criminal here is how Daddy suddenly recovers from a gunshot to the head just enough to hunt Anna down and finish the job he started, and how little the filmmakers then choose to confront just what it is that Daddy fears in this girl — what she represents to him and the world. There is no interiority to these characters; there is no reason to tell this story.
It’s a very male fantasy to want to plug up girls’ blood and hormones in film and to keep them “childlike” until the moment they automatically turn into sex machines; Gore Verbinski’s 2016 sci-fi film A Cure for Wellness broke me after the developmentally arrested female character literally got her period in a pool of frenzied eels. The metaphor is clear: Girls turning into women are scary, and thus their development must be stopped at all costs. But what the men who make these movies fail to understand is that menstruation isn’t some magical gateway drug urging girls toward arousal. Girls become aware of their sexuality before they get their periods, and even when they don’t — well, ask the horny cross-country runners at my high school if their low percentage of body fat did anything to curb their sexual development.
It’s not that men are unable to tell female-awakening stories. I’ve found great value in John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth and even Brian De Palma’s Carrie, all of which allow their protagonists to be messy and multidimensional. But Wildling just doesn’t reach maturity.