Denny (Chris Messina) tells his teenage son Paul (Jaeden Martell) to stand tall with dignity and never run away. Meant as inspiration with a sympathetic heart, these words fall flat because he’s trying to solve the wrong problem—his inability to truly understand Paul’s uniquely personal perspective leading him astray. Denny wants to believe the knit mask covering his boy’s face is a means to hide from the world because his goal is to protect his child from the terrible things ignorant people say and think. Reality proves more complicated, though, since that outside noise is never as potent as what’s festering inside. Paul can’t be forced into feeling empowered over strangers if he’s yet to conquer his own self-hate. And that struggle can only be fought on his terms.
Writer Olivia Dufault and director Martin Krejcí must therefore put him on a path of hard knock life lessons away from the naïve father inherently (but non-maliciously) pushing him towards an isolated life while attempting the opposite. So it’s only when Paul does run that The True Adventures of Wolfboy begins to expose him to a world far-removed from small town USA’s black and white mindset. This is where he meets a collector of misfits in carnival ringleader Mr. Silk (John Turturro), a transgender singer treating him as an equal (Sophie Giannamore’s Aristiana), and a one-eyed thief taking him under wing to show that rules are meant to be broken (Eve Hewson’s Rose). They see him as something even his father can’t: a child just like any other.
This is the thing too many people can’t understand. A well-meaning ally who decides to remove you from “normal” society under the auspices of safety is often no different than the bully calling you names because their actions remain rooted in this notion that you don’t belong. Denny can’t ask Paul to be courageous and then ship him off to a boarding school for physically deformed kids without being the definition of a hypocrite. Suddenly the one place he thought was safe no longer is and the one person he hated more than himself (Chloë Sevigny as the mother who abandoned him) becomes his last chance for understanding. It’s her birthday gift of a map and promise of answers that readies Paul to confront whatever dangers lie ahead.
Set-up like a quest with illustrated chapter headings depicting dragons, mermaids, and devils, Paul’s mission to go to Pennsylvania gradually coaxes him out of his shell by necessity. He’s the heroic wolfboy of this fantastical façade—covered head to toe in hair and thus forever prone to stares and ridicule. Where there was fear in showing his true self to strangers at the start, Mr. Silk’s transparent exploitation (be a circus freak in exchange for bus fare to his mother) provides the pool of human cruelty in which he’s thrown into the deep-end to combat their judgment and curiosity with strength. Where there was fear of pain when chased by malevolent bullies, Aristiana’s sharp-edged empathy provides an atmosphere in which to cultivate a voice atop his usual silence.
Add in Rose and her freewheeling crime spree to steal the makings for a birthday bash the likes of which Paul has never seen and we realize exactly how stifling his home life was. Denny shielded him in a way that exacerbated his struggles while Aristiana and Rose let his “animalistic” side out to (figuratively) howl at the moon. Because regular society feigns understanding while keeping him at arm’s length, it’s on him to then use their fears against them and demand their attention to reclaim agency away from their protective clutches. So he bites his father. He frightens people with purpose rather than through their prejudices alone. He becomes the “monster” Mr. Silk seeks to unleash—wielding the public’s fear as an advantage rather than a curse.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy inevitably goes to some dark places as a result. Think Tim Burton placing mankind’s treachery beneath playful tropes and a whimsically dark aesthetic. Rather than be a kid’s film variation on the “ugly duckling” theme, Dufault and Krejcí lend an authenticity and complexity that allows the stakes and emotions to rise higher. They set Mr. Silk up as an evil force with as many lessons to teach as those to ignore and not fall prey to villainy (Turturro chews the scenery with a voracious appetite, determined to turn Paul against the world he’s desperate to have embrace him) and Aristiana as a beacon of light (Giannamore’s mix of pragmatism and hope is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking). Which side will Paul choose?
Even he’s unsure as his frustration and anger sometimes pushes Aristiana away with the same hate others used on him. The door for Mr. Silk to swoop in and claim his soul is thus wide open for a majority of the run-time as every instance of promise is inevitably ripped away to reveal the unfortunate reality those outside our outdated and impossible standards for “normalcy” face everyday. Survival might only arrive for them with the knowledge that others have overcome the same or worse before. Paul can either look at Aristiana (and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s crucial cameo role) as someone to aspire towards or someone to ridicule as a means of fitting in. Does he selflessly fight back against bullies or join in to selfishly save himself alone?
It’s an important message that parents will hopefully let younger children see regardless of the swearing that warrants its PG-13 rating. With its laudable representation both artificial (Martell underwent three hours of make-up each morning to become “wolfboy”) and real (Giannamore is a transgender actress playing a transgender character), Krejcí’s film possesses the necessary weight and purpose that allows its palatable genre trappings to deliver its morals to an audience that may otherwise avoid them. In the end it’s about having the compassion to listen to, understand, and prop up those who are different than you because they deserve as much love and opportunities as you do. Forcing someone to be someone they aren’t never helps—a lesson that’s unfortunately too often learned only after it’s too late.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy played at the Buffalo International Film Festival.