Paul is a sweet boy about to celebrate his 13th birthday. Like many pubescent teens, he questions his self-worth and identity; only his reason is unusual—he’s covered with hair, like a dog, as schoolmates say when they cruelly taunt him. His father (Chris Messina, “Argo” 2012) is cloyingly attentive, if not always helpful. Dad takes Paul (17-year-old Jaeden Martell, “Knives Out” 2019) to a carnival as a birthday gift and tells him to take off his knitted ski mask and have dignity. Try that with a wolf-like face.
“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is reminiscent of “Eighth Grade.” It features a barely-teenager with no friends, an absent mother and a caring father. It’s a worthy addition to the teen-angst canon, though not as edgy as that 2018 break-out indie hit. What it does have is three appealing young stars and, as its setting, the city of Buffalo, lovingly captured on film in both its quirkiness and stunning iconography.
Paul rejects his father’s attempts to put him into a school for outcasts, where he would be grouped with children who have deformities and deficiencies.
Paul rejects his father’s attempts to put him into a school for outcasts, where he would be grouped with children who have deformities and deficiencies. Andrew Solomon’s “Far from the Tree,” a masterful account of parents dealing with children who are different from them, comes to mind: imagine all those kids together in the same school. Maybe not.
In response to his father, Paul runs away to the carnival. Another trope, but one that works. Mr. Silk, the carnival master, is a delightfully caricatured “devil,” played with comic and malevolent zeal by John Turturro (also an executive producer). “You’re some kind of wonderful,” he exclaims when Paul unmasks. That’s before Silk puts him in a cage to entice carnival-goers to part with their money to gawk at and touch him. Later, insisting that Wolfboy must deal with “reality,” Silk tells Paul he will have no friends, no one will love him: “You have a disfiguring medical condition.”
The carnival venture having gone awry, Paul discovers a fellow outcast, Aristiana, who lives in the shadow of Buffalo’s majestic grain elevators. Aristiana, whose real name is Kevin (Sophie Giannamore, a transgender actress, TV’s “The Good Doctor”), takes Paul on adventures with others who reject the mainstream, including Rosie (Eve Hewson, “Robin Hood” 2018), the “Pirate Queen” who describes herself as “self-destructive” and lives in her car. Paul, Aristiana and Rosie embark on a series of escapades that include robbing mini-marts (colorful landmarks in Buffalo—though the three misfits supposedly are on the road to Pennsylvania to find Paul’s Mom) and throwing a lavish and well-attended birthday party for the 13-year-old in a lighthouse, complete with fireworks. A fantasy of acceptance.
Andrew Droz Palermo’s (“A Ghost Story” 2017) cinematography is lush, especially as it dwells on some of Buffalo’s more—and less—noteworthy locales. In addition to the mini-marts and grain elevators, he highlights The Tire Depot in Lackawanna, windmills on the Lake Erie shore, the Old First Ward, the Skyway, the Art Deco city hall, and downtown—in a long, elevated shot that closes the film. One more Buffalo call-out is actor Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences” 2016), in a role in which he’s recognizable to locals mainly from his voice. Director Martin Krejčí, best known for award-winning shorts and commercials, introduces the film’s “chapters” with elaborate, eye-catching art plates, as in “Wolfboy Deals with the Devil” and “Wolfboy Meets a Mermaid.”
The school Paul’s Dad finds is therapeutic, the carnival represents an intolerable future, the party is a kind of fantasy, robbery is escapist exhilaration. There’s no “intersectionality” in which Paul can find his own kind; no one else has hair on his face. Nor is Mom (Chloë Sevigny) the answer—though she has a clue for him in an upstairs bedroom.
Because Paul’s teenage anxiety is a product of a gross and rare genetic defect, “Wolfboy” may feel less real—less generally relevant—than “Eighth Grade.” It’s still a fine family film, assuming you are okay with some rough language, under-age drinking, robbery and arson—all without consequences.
Director: Martin Krejčí
Starring: Jaeden Martell, Sophie Giannamore, John Turturro, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen McKinley Henderson
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Runtime: 88 minutes
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