Dazzling fantasy “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” brings a thrilling journey of self-acceptance to life
When it comes to fantasy, I’ve always been most drawn to stories that emphasize the element of escape; stories in which the setting is not just a magical world, but a world that is within reach of our own reality. There’s something almost seductive about stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Peter Pan, or A Wrinkle in Time in which the characters just happen to stumble upon a wondrous world that’s only a flight away or behind the thin wooden back of a wardrobe. The idea that Narnia and Neverland could exist alongside reality endows my own world with a rich and thrilling potential energy. This is the sort of thrill I experienced while watching Martin Krejcí’s feature directorial debut, The True Adventures of Wolfboy, a delightful coming-of-age drama that combines the fantastical visual style of Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) with the adventurousness of timeless teen classics like Stand by Me (1986). Although the hero of the story, Paul, (Jaeden Martell) never actually crosses over into another world, and all of his adventures could, in theory, take place in our present reality, his journey exudes such heroic grandeur and wide-eyed fantastical wonder that it captures the thrill of a fantasyland just waiting to be discovered behind a door or down a rabbit hole.
Writer Olivia Dufault structures The True Adventures of Wolfboy as a classic hero's journey, filling the story with surprising details and rich characters that give it a special edge. As the story begins, Paul is coming up on his thirteenth birthday and wants nothing more for his special day than to hide in his room and fade into the background. Born with hypertrichosis, a condition in which thick hair covers his entire body, Paul has been subjected to nasty bullying throughout his childhood. To make matters worse, he also struggles knowing that his mother abandoned him and his father (Chris Messina) when he was just a baby. After an argument with his dad about boarding school, Paul impulsively climbs out his window, equipped with a ski-mask to protect himself from judging eyes, and crosses a threshold into the fantastical as he begins a journey to find his mother. Along the way, Paul befriends a cast of wild characters, from the beautiful mermaid-like Aristiana (Sophie Giannamomre) to the crooked and vile carnival king, Mr. Silk (John Turturro). Facing a series of tasks and challenges, Paul’s journey transforms his outlook on his hypertrichosis and leads him to find acceptance in unlikely places.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy creates a fantastical space somewhere adjacent to our own world where kids who feel different can experience shenanigans and adventure. This fantastical space is created, in part, by the characters who occupy it, who each invite the audience into the story with dynamic and memorable performances. Jaeden Martell (It, 2017) effectively captures Paul's volatile, adolescent state of mind, creating a character who isn’t exactly sure what he wants, doesn’t yet know who he is, and hasn’t quite realized that although he is hurting deeply, his outbursts have the capacity to hurt others. While Paul is a soft-spoken boy who keeps to himself as much as he can, he is also quick-witted and snarky, and his built-up grief and confusion are beginning to boil over as he learns to stand up for himself. Martell delivers his absurdly humorous lines with the melancholy undertones of a depressed kid who genuinely feels like he has nothing left to lose. Accompanying Paul on his journey is the bright, dynamic, and hilarious Rose (Eve Hewson, Robin Hood, 2018), a jaded teenage delinquent “pirate” who robs all the local convenience stores in order to throw Paul a birthday party. Paul also meets Aristiana, who is brought to life by the shining and confident screen presence of Sophie Giannamore in her feature debut. As a transgender girl living under the threat of an unaccepting mother, Aristiana has a lot to teach Paul about self-love, optimism, and hard choices.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy is specific enough in its conflict that it’s not too similar to other coming-of-age films, yet universal enough that it speaks to a wide audience of both young people who are searching for themselves and adults who are nostalgic for childhood adventures. While we can’t all relate to hypertrichosis, many teens who struggle with body image in a variety of forms can relate to that paranoid feeling that everyone is staring at them and laughing, which Paul experiences on many occasions. We haven’t all had the specific experience of trying to shave off a coat of hair from our entire body only to have it grow back twice as thick; however, when Aristiana asks Paul why he doesn’t just shave all his hair off, I could hear the echoes of a thousand similar questions that young people get asked every day. “Why don’t you just cleanse your face for your acne? Why don’t you just get a higher paying job if you need more money? Why don’t you just be happy if you’re depressed?” Paul’s struggle to simply exist as a young boy in the world around him, filled with people who want to be helpful but just don’t understand what he’s going through, will strike a chord with many young people in the audience.
The True Adventures of Wolfboy marvelously captures all the best aspects of fantastical storytelling. Structured into sections, or “chapters,” that reflect the hero’s journey, the film radiates that warm feeling of hearing old stories from a beloved grandparent while sitting around a campfire. The film is excellently edited, beautifully scripted, and bold. As a coming-of-age/ buddy road trip/ fantasy, The True Adventures of Wolfboy is the perfect contemporary adventure.
Available on demand and digital Friday, October 30th, 2020
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."