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‘Wolf’ Review: Clunky Identity-Crisis Drama Is Neither Fish nor Fowl

·4-min read

Species dysphoria. That’s what the professionals call the condition troubling Jakob (George MacKay) in “Wolf,” a shockingly dull look at a fascinating disorder affecting humans who believe they were born into the wrong species. Jakob is convinced he’s a wolf in human clothing, and except for the first and last scenes, he spends practically the entire film trying to fight that impression at the True You rehab center, where crackpot doctors (led by Paddy Considine) use a troubling assortment of treatments to “cure” Jakob and his fellow patients.

As presented, True You feels like a cross between a zoo and a gay conversion therapy clinic, where Jakob finds himself surrounded by a menagerie of other frustrated young people: a shy, awkward young woman (Elsa Fionur) who whinnies like a horse; another (Lola Petticrew) who wears a false beak and feather headdress of sorts and repeats others’ words; and an eager, friendly boy named Rufus (Fionn O’Shea) who behaves like a German shepherd. Seated among the other “otherkin” — the lay term for people who identify as non-human — Jakob appears to have a relatively mild case of species identity disorder, at least until he starts growling at and attacking the staff, at which point he has to be restrained.

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Considering all the attention the trans community has gotten of late, this is a rich time to be tackling identity issues, although a film like this — which boils down to the idea that people are who they are, however difficult that may be for others to accept — confuses more than it contributes to any understanding of such topics. Writer-director Nathalie Biancheri doesn’t make any mention of LGBTQ issues or the trans experience, but it’s hard for the mind not to make the leap … which is unfortunate, recalling the specious slippery-slope argument Pat Robertson used against gay marriage, suggesting it would open the door for bestiality, polygamy and pedophilia.

Perhaps young audiences won’t be burdened by that analogy, although there’s not a whole lot else here to engage with, apart from a transparently ineffective series of treatments the unfortunately named Dr. Mann (Considine) has concocted to intimidate patients back into their human identities. His method involves encouraging their animal instincts — telling the parrot girl to “fly” from a second-story window, or pressuring a squirrel boy (Darragh Shannon) to climb a tree with his “claws” — and then using the resulting injuries to show them the error of their impulses.

For viewers, unless you know someone who thinks he’s a giraffe or a gerbil, it can be frustrating to judge what we’re seeing. Evidently, Biancheri considered making a documentary about people with species dysphoria, and if she had, at least we’d be watching genuine examples of the condition, rather than this slow, straight-faced dramatic approach. Lily-Rose Depp certainly looks committed as “wildcat” Cecile when she purrs and hisses and paints her face with false whiskers, but the same went for the cast of “Cats.” And how to judge MacKay’s performance: Are we to ask whether he makes a convincing wolf, or merely whether we believe that Jakob believes his behavior?

“Wolf” introduces MacKay (a striking young actor better suited to supporting roles than an alpha part like this) standing naked in the woods. He crawls around on all fours and marks his territory, his sinewy body looking convincingly feral, if not the slightest bit lupine. Sure, it seems plausible that such people might have a problem with clothes, but why is Jakob the only one who avoids them? Other characters don costumes that make them look and feel more animal-like, which seems to associate species dysphoria with a different subculture altogether: plushies (but let’s not go there). Stranger still is the romantic subplot that arises between Jakob and Cecile, whose spirit animals — wolf and wildcat — are theoretically incompatible. Maybe this attraction could be the thing to break the spell. Or maybe it will just set up one of the weirdest sex scenes in recent memory, in which he’s chained and caged, wearing a muzzle, while she uses her opposable thumbs to pleasure him off camera.

From Kafka to Kipling, there’s plenty of potential in the subject of species dysphoria, but Biancheri hasn’t really figured out how to tap into it. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos toyed with some of these ideas in “The Lobster,” but fashioned a suitably surreal parable to accompany them. Until quite recently, a Hollywood studio probably would’ve imposed the “Awakenings” approach, in which an Oliver Sacks-like doctor benevolently treats Jakob. “Wolf” is more cynical, presenting True You as a sadistic prison from which Jakob needs to escape, à la “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” But that puts audiences in the strange position of rooting for a most uncertain outcome: If they flee, what next? The world is a cruel place for animals. If these kids think they have it bad in “captivity,” is “freedom” really the solution?

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