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Wildlike: Film Review and a Look Behind the Screen

Demons & Deliverance


Wildlike: Demons & Deliverance

Wildlike: Demons & Deliverance

Wildlike is a movie about survival on a very core level with a
masterful delivery of solid, well-researched characters.


By Teeka Ballas, F Magazine
 First published in Anchorage Press, Dec. 11, 2014

In a display of impressive prowess by screenwriter Frank Hall Green, his directorial debut, Wildlike, grapples demons and deliverance against the backdrop of Alaska’s immense wilderness with great agility.

Though the first few scenes seem comprised of choppy audio and visuals that feel like they lack cohesion, it becomes clear there is nothing in Wildlike that occurs without intention. From the very beginning, the low tones and disjointed shots make it evident something is not quite right. With little explanation, Mackenzie (Ella Purnell)—a somber, geographically daft 14-year-old, is sent to spend time with her uncle—her recently deceased father’s brother (Brian Geraghty) in Alaska while her mom tends to her own addictions back in Seattle. Her uncle’s eager puppy-like behavior as he vies for her acceptance is somewhat unnerving, as are the tight, claustrophobic shots of his home, yard and workplace–none of which allude to the vast wilderness just beyond.

Time begins to slow down on the night Mackenzie’s uncle crawls into bed with her. It is a meticulously choreographed scene that is painfully hard to watch, but is imperative the audience experience so to understand the subtle terrors, confusion and betrayal that will propel Mackenzie.

Like an internalized scream, the visuals begin to expand. Tight shots become elongated, increasing in size and depth, until they explode when Mackenzie seizes a moment and flees. She’s in Juneau, so an audience in Alaska most likely knows her routes of escape are limited–but she’s not from Alaska so she doesn’t quite understand the size of her predicament. In her poorly plotted escape, Mackenzie stumbles upon and then pursues Rene Bartlet/Bart (Bruce Greenwood), a man weighted with regrets, on his way to Denali to pay homage to his late wife. It is important to note, Bart is not a hero—he is not a knight in shining armor there to save the day—he’s merely a reluctant participant. Mackenzie saves herself, and as an act of survival, she finds and latches onto someone she feels she can trust to keep her alive and get her to where she needs to go.

To say this film is about sexual abuse overly simplifies it, and although cinematographer Hillary Spera did a stand up job capturing both the majestic size and isolation of Alaska’s mountains and tundra—all shot on 35 mm—to categorize it as an Alaska adventure movie it a great disservice.

Wildlike is a movie about survival on a very core level with a masterful delivery of solid, well-researched characters. With skillful nuance, Purnell meticulously conveys the multilayers of a traumatized, grieving and abandoned teenager. The chemistry between her and Greenwood, even when their characters are estranged and at odds with each other is deeply compelling. Perhaps most impressive is the depth and humanness Geraghty brings to the uncle—a very hard character to align with and have empathy for. In fact, the choices made in casting Wildlike are inarguably fantastic, down to every extra and bit part.

The beauty of independent filmmaking is that filmmakers can take on topics big, corporate financed blockbusters will not and cannot; most often, independence allows artists to keep their vision and integrity intact. This is an obvious truth with Wildlike; there are a number of times when this film could reward the audience with a whole lot of backstory and extrapolation, with a big Hollywood “Gotcha!” gratuitous pedophilia or redeeming political correctness—and because it does not, some people may walk away from this film feeling less a sense of resolve, but this film is profoundly deft, honest and even hopeful. It is a stroke of genius to have a story about a sexually abused teenager—a topic no one is anxious to run out and to see on the big screen—set in the untamed, rarely shot for feature film Alaska wilderness. The scenery lures an audience into a conversation that is in dire need of being had, particularly in a state that harbors a tragic number of both victims and perpetrators.


Contemplating Content

Wildlike Filmmakers Speak to Silence


By Dawnell Smith, F Magazine
 First published in Anchorage Press, Dec. 11, 2014

Movies often promise what we can’t count on in life— heroes, miracles, a new start, a clean slate, a chance to settle the score. Working against this impulse, Wildlike basks in small human gestures that alight a path through the landscape of loss and betrayal, trust and hope. Using Alaska as a visual trope for immeasurable possibility and indelible loss, the film tells the story of a runaway girl who latches onto a widower when making her escape.

Filmmaker Frank Hall Green wanted to stay true to life. “I wanted to present the sexual abuse in a way it hasn’t been presented before in film,” he said. “I wanted it so that Mackenzie would not tell, no matter what.” In the creation of Wildlike, Green drew from his experience of a family member who worked with perpetrators, and studied and conducted countless interviews with survivors. “I heard many extreme stories of people unable to fully recover,” said Green, who also relied on his cast to research and help define their characters.

By relating the abuse directly, honestly, the filmmakers wanted to tell a story of hope. “Abuse is the catalyst, but the film is about healing,” said Julie Christeas, a producer for the film.

As the film makes the festival circuit this year, its makers encounter and try to correct the many misconceptions about sexual abuse and its lifelong impact on survivors. In the film, for example, Mackenzie behaves sexually toward several men while trying to navigate her way home. In one scene, a young man responds to Mackenzie’s advances, despite sensing something wrong.

“A lot of men don’t understand why she (Mackenzie) would come on to Tommy, why she would come on to Bart,” said Green. “Men see it very differently than women, I’ve learned. They don’t understand the extent of the trauma.”

Green populated the film with more men than women, however. During the Q&A after the Anchorage premiere last week, a woman asked Green why he chose a man rather than a woman as the girl’s ally or protector. He included more female characters in earlier incarnations, he said, but the writing “comes out instinctually and, in that choice, I wanted a male because that was the relationship she needed to have. She needed to have an appropriate relationship with a father figure.“

Plus, said Christeas, “When you’re running from something you often come against that same challenge over and over again.”

After Mackenzie escapes her perpetrator, she scrounges for resources, manipulates other travelers, makes wrong turns using sketchy means, and vacillates between needing to trust someone and distrusting everyone, particularly men, while trying to connect to those who might help her survive.

This pattern of running toward and then away is common among those who have survived sexual abuse, and makes up a common Alaska motif. Green noted in his director’s notes that he “first subconsciously wrote a story of adventure, exploring themes of freedom, escape and innocence. Then, consciously, I asked myself why do I and others seek out adventure? What do people run away from? Or run away to?”

His Wildlike heroine cannot undo what was done, nor easily unravel how the trauma will influence her actions and choices in the days and years to come, but as she makes her journey she can see beyond the narrow field of fear to tomorrow.

The film may have a message, said producer Schuyler Weiss, but “You’re not hearing something didactic.The film is exhilarating, has a strong center, it makes a contribution.”

By embracing a topic made invisible, yet indelible by its effects, Wildlike stirs an emotional wanderlust without sugar coating the hardships and miles along the way.

Green found it daunting to write from the prospective of a 14-year-old girl, and harder still to write the uncle’s part. “I wasn’t up to it at first as a first-time feature writer,” he said.

He knows that some scenes make people uncomfortable and may test people’s patience, but his artistic decision to make an honest film meant carrying that truth forward in structure and story. Unforgiveable acts leave lifetime wounds, but trust and love help heal them.

“Life is a lot of darkness and lightness,” he said. “It’s a lot of back and forth.

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