Becoming a teenager is a strange time. Our bodies start to change. Growth spurts. Girls become more “developed.” Boys start to have peach fuzz and grow hair in places that remain undercover. This middle road of being a kid and being a grown up is like being stuck in neutral.
Paul’s been stuck in neutral since childbirth. He’s already got what most boys his age, 13, covet: facial hair. Only the whiskers are everywhere. Forehead, under the eyes, along the jawline. We’re not talking a little fuzz, either. The other boys treat him as a freak, calling him “Hairy Potter” and other names, heckling him to no end. Paul wears a crimson Balaclava beanie to hide his freakish appearance, still unable to stand his ground in the presence of bullies. They are an obstacle for Paul – forcing him to run away from uncomfortable situations – but his biggest obstacle to overcome is his lack of self-acceptance. But getting there is going to be a risk he’ll have to take if he wants to truly grow up.
So begins Martin Krejčí’s THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY, a road-trip, coming-of-age movie containing themes that are staples of the young adult genre. Olivia Dufault, a playwright that has written for TV series PREACHER and LEGION, concocts a story of magic and mythicism, where our hero bolts from his convenient surroundings and sets off for an adventure to meet the woman who birthed him thirteen years ago.
Oh, and about Paul’s hair – it’s a medical condition called Hypertrichosis. Dufault never names his condition, instead allowing his condition to be some sort of fairy tale birthright. (Punishment for a mother’s lack of compassion, perhaps?) If Paul was born this way it must be for a reason.
When I think back on WOLFBOY, I keep picturing Eric Stolz as Ricky Dennis in MASK. After the initial shock of seeing Stolz in heavy facial prosthetics, the feeling goes away and you become engrossed with the performance. The same thing happened watching Jaden Martell – yes, young Bill Denbrough of IT – as Paul. I wasn’t watching Jaden as a wolf boy, I saw only Paul.
That’s a credit to Mark Garbarino, who handled the makeup effects. Garbarino has been doing makeup and special effects for more than 30 years and his credits include ALIEN NATION, Jon Voight’s prosthetics for Michael Mann’s Ali (where Voight played the legendary Howard Cosell), and more recently makeup effects for CAPTAIN MARVEL and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. For Krejčí to nab someone like Garbarino for his first film project is a major coup. His approach for Paul is definitely Lon Chaney’s THE WOLFMAN under a half moon, not a full moon.
At the movie’s onset, it’s Paul’s birthday and his father (Chris Messina) has taken him to a traveling carnival. Always self-conscious about his appearance in public, Paul walks by the attractions in his Balaclava headdress. Paul has no friends, and when he’s spotted by schoolmates they act friendly to Paul in the presence of his dad only to change those smiles to snarls, taunting and calling him names (and insinuating that his missing mom must have been a real dog). Though his father lends a sympathetic ear and implores Paul to stand his ground and not run away, it is for naught. Angered and despondent, dignity doesn’t appear to be in his vocabulary. Paul wants to belong and be accepted.
But to know thyself, Paul needs to know why his mom left him. Maybe she can explain his condition. Lo and behold, he gets a birthday gift – a strange foil-wrapped box containing a map with the message, “When you’re ready, there is an explanation.” The next thing you know, Paul is out of his bedroom window and on an adventure.
Each new adventure is marked with a title card beautifully illustrated as if they were pulled from a children’s book, and give us a clue of who he will meet and if the situations get a little “hairy.” His first stop is back at the traveling carnival where meets the owner, Mr. Silk (John Turturro), who promises fortune if Paul is willing to be a new profit-exploiting attraction. The carnival barker makes no judgements about Paul or his condition, having seemingly seen it all. And as Paul starts to discover from other outcasts living in sticks – like the singing mermaid Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore) or the pirate queen Rose (Eve Hewson, sporting an eye patch – just don’t ask how she lost her eye!) – they could care less if he’s rocking more hair than Robin Williams on his forearms.
THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF WOLFBOY feels like it was plucked from my ‘80s childhood and remodeled with contemporary aesthetics. Movies of my youth would joke about appearance and sexuality (“What you say, faggot?”). That was the norm then and should not be accepted in today’s culture. What is most interesting is that Giannamore, who has been openly transgender since 11, is confident of her own identity as Aristiana. It’s the criticisms of her mother and cruel biology she can’t tolerate. She teaches Paul to think about his condition differently, while Giannamore’s own experiences as a transgender encourage tolerance. A clever wraparound metaphor built on story design and great casting.
Director: Martin Krejčí
Cast: Jaeden Martell, Sophie Giannamore, John Turturro, Eve Hewson, Chris Messina, Michelle Wilson, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen McKinley Henderson
Tags: Chloë Sevigny, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Fantastc Fest 2019, Fantastic Fest, Jaeden Martell, john turturro, Martin Krejčí, Michelle Wilson, Sophie Giannamore, Stephen McKinley Henderson, True Adventures of Wolfboy