For centuries, bedtime stories have given us big bad wolves and the little girls who had to outwit or outrun them to survive. First-time filmmaker Fritz Böhm turns those old dark fairytales sideways in Wildling — a clever, sharp-fanged mélange of classic midnight-movie horror and modern indie ingenuity.
Anna (Bel Powley) is a wilted little flower in the attic, confined to her room by the man she only knows as Daddy (Deadwood’s’ Brad Dourif, looking appropriately sepulchral). He’s been a faithful caretaker since she was small, bathing and feeding and checking her vitals regularly.
But he also tells her vivid tales of the Wildling, a fearsome creature that waits for her out in the misty woods she can see from her lone window — “His teeth are sharp, and so are his nails… He ate all the other children. You’re the last one left.” — and keeps the attic doorknob, her only access to the outside world, electrified. And when puberty arrives, as it naturally would for any girl her age, he begins painful daily injections of “medicine” to stop the monthly periods that confound her.
What’s manageable enough for a small child, though, hardly seems sustainable for a growing teenager. And it isn’t: When Anna wakes up terrified and disoriented in a hospital bed, she’s free, but almost immediately faced with a host of overwhelming sounds and ideas and information. She’s lucky to have an ally in Ellen (a gum-snapping, gently sympathetic Liv Tyler), a local sheriff who offers to take her in and help her adjust to her strange new life, without realizing just how much the strangeness runs both ways.
With her raspy, childlike voice and wide lemur eyes, British actress Powley (The Diary of A Teenage Girl), fully inhabits her character’s feral mix of innocence and primal instinct. Wary and traumatized but also quick to tap into a deep slipstream of feeling, her Anna is like Jodie Foster’s Nell with an eerie edge of Samara from The Ring. Shoes and hot dogs and high school parties are all brand new to her, and so are the eager, side-smiling high school boys that suddenly materialize from every corner — not all of them as kind as Ellen’s younger brother, Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet).
Teenage sexuality as a metaphor for death and destruction is nearly as old as cinema (or as old as Carrie, at least, and still as current as shivery recent touchstones like Let the Right One In). So there’s something inevitable about the swift unraveling of Anna’s coexistence with the outside world. As Bohm — assisted by vivid visuals from Get Out DP Toby Oliver — steers Wildling careens toward its gruesome, hallucinatory climax, the film loses something in logic but gains a visceral, almost volcanic momentum; a monster movie that refuses to soothe the savage beast, or send anyone home to sweet dreams. B+