I remember hearing Judd Apatow say he cast his daughter, Maude Apatow, in The King of Staten Island because it gave him partial excuse to spend time with her in the middle of an active period of her life where she was often away. I’m going to assume this was basically the entire impetus behind Ethan Hawke and his daughter Maya’s film collaboration Wildcat, as there’s going to be a lot of ‘splainin’ to do––sinking to the level of Marvel’s Moon Knight is no longer Hawke’s greatest crime against the moving image.

Upon opening with a deeply unfunny fake trailer for a hothouse ’60s melodrama about the film’s subject, Flannery O’Connor, my heart sank. Wildcat is a film of one misguided choice after another, the difficulty in articulating the creative process through non-corny means leading Hawke down a path straying from conventional drama, yes, but perhaps he should’ve taken a cue from Terence Davies’ recent poet biopics A Quiet Passion and Benediction instead of indulging in lame sense of humor. The film essentially documents the writing of the famous Southern novelist’s first full-length work Wise Blood (you’ve possibly seen John Huston’s adaptation, at least), and all that goes through her head doing so, including the people in her life being transplanted onto the characters of her work via daydreams, etc.

Hawke is a wonderful actor with seemingly no idea how to guide or rein in those he directs. I wish Maya Hawke could best the nepo accusations, yet her remarkably weak presence (with an unconvincing accent) sinks the film to points that pros like Laura Linney (as O’Connor’s mother) seemingly overcompensate with heretofore-unseen levels of mugging. An awful gray color palette makes the film further depressing to watch, giving the sense of a work where no element is in harmony with the other.

Hawke’s directorial output has largely switched between fiction and documentary portraits of artists, indicating his interests are stuck in one area. And listen: I don’t want him to make us like the guy less! The artist poorly rendering his own tunnel vision isn’t Wildcat‘s biggest crime, though. The film’s at its absolute worst in its tone-deaf reckoning with racism across the south, as if to account for O’Connor’s own well-known bigotry. During a fantasy sequence wherein Jesus offers O’Connor’s mother the chance to experience life as a Black woman I genuinely felt I was watching the worst movie I’d ever seen at TIFF. In fact, it’s both embarrassing having to watch its attempts at comedy fall flat to an audience of nearly 500 people, as well as the fact that it’s granted placement at multiple festivals when it’s so clearly the work of an amateur filmmaker. One hopes Wildcat can disappear into thin air so that it doesn’t have to weigh on Hawke’s legacy.

Wildcat screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: D-

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