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#TIFF21 Review: Wolf (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

George MacKay plays a young man who believes he’s actually a wolf trapped in a human body in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri’s new film Wolf, which explores the concept of “species dysphoria.” And the film is fine. Neither the total mess nor the instant cult classic that it could have been, Wolf instead is a pretty good if uneven indie drama that is carried by committed performances, with a premise that is just absurd enough to attract curious viewers.

With his parents worried about how he’s been acting too much like a wolf, Jacob (MacKay) gets sent to a clinic that claims to cure people of the belief that they have been born in the wrong body, i.e., a human one. There’s a teen boy who thinks he’s a squirrel, and a girl who wears feathers and a beak and repeats everything back like a parrot. You get the idea.

The clinic is run by a cruel psychiatrist who is known as “The Zookeeper” (played by a terrifying Paddy Considine), who believes in physical punishment, and that the feelings his patients are experiencing can be trained out of them through conversion therapy techniques. It’s here that Jacob meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a feline-identifying patient who bonds with Jacob, despite their natural differences in species identity.

Biancheri was inspired to write the screenplay after reading an article about the real phenomenon of “species dysphoria,” but the story of Wolf could also be read as an allegory of gender identity, racism, speciesism, and gay conversion therapy. I’m not sure if the central metaphor always works. The abject cruelty on display in terms of the torture that these kids are forced to go through also makes the film somewhat tough to watch.

But Wolf features a very committed performance by MacKay, who immerses himself in the role right from the opening scene of him writhing around naked on the forest floor. There are some memorable moments of wolf acting throughout, like when he scurries through the hallways of the clinic shirtless and on all fours, eventually coming to a kitchen window so he can howl at the moon. MacKay keeps Jacob’s emotions very internalized, but comes alive in these scenes.

Depp also commits herself to the strangeness of her role, including a scene where her and MacKay crawl around on the roof sniffing each other, him growling and her purring. Finally, Fionn O’Shea shines in a weirdly compelling supporting role as a boy who believes he is a German Shepherd, and befriends Jacob like a playful puppy. There are moments of absurd humour, sure, but Biancheri also strives for empathy with what her characters are going through.

The film feels a bit too slow in parts, and some of the scenes showing the characters getting in touch with their animal sides can feel like watching acting exercises in a theatre class. The characters in general can seem somewhat thin and are not always that well fleshed out. But Biancheri’s film builds to an engaging finale that includes a stirring sequence that is memorably set to the song “Gloria.” Go for the weirdness of the premise, stay for the full-bodied acting of the leads.

Public Screenings:

Friday, September 17th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Friday, September 17h – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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