Sometimes a synopsis doesn’t tell you enough about a movie. Sometimes they are written to be elusive enough to spark a flicker of interest, yet only give a few tidbits of what is in store. Such is the case for Christopher Winterbauer’s WYRM. The synopsis leaves us to believe that the story takes place in a “futuristic yet analog universe” and that the protagonist is a “dinosaur-obsessed youth” struggling to complete a school assignment or risk “enduring a lifetime of embarrassment.”
What the synopsis doesn’t tell you is that that future has already happened and the school assignment is having your first kiss. The setting is suburbia, circa the early nineties, when houses still had landlines, rotary dial telephones, and hi-fi stereo systems with two cassette decks.
What the synopsis also omits is this is a story about a broken family and how to deal with grief.
WYRM is a dark comedy about adolescence, though not in the vein of WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE. Imagine if Todd Solodnz’s caustic screenplay had been scrubbed with the softer side of sandpaper and revolved around an awkward, insecure teenage boy with oversized eyeglasses.
I try to limit making comparisons to other films when writing about a feature (even though I just did), because it feels like a crutch to classify works of art this way. Though I’d imagine Winterbauer – when making his 2017 short WYRM – had films like DOLLHOUSE and NAPOLEON DYNAMITE on the brain. Having received some acclaim in the short film category at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Winterbauer expands upon an intriguing premise that includes remote monitoring and sexual awareness, sibling rivalry, and mourning the loss of an older brother that was praised by his peers but may have actually been a cruel human being.
This time Wyrm is a little older. Theo Tapliz, one of the young stars of LITTLE MEN and a filmmaker in his own right with the 2015 short TRUE PLACES NEVER ARE, plays the title character and him as the star is a great example of why casting directors are so crucial. Wendy O’Brien has worked in casting for the better part of 20 years, first as an assistant in Canada for shows like THE X-FILES, then as a casting associate for movies like FINAL DESTINATION, MEMENTO, and DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, before being in charge of casting series SONS OF ANARCHY and CARNIVALE. Casting young actors can be such an ordeal, especially a boy going through puberty. Heaven help the filmmakers if his voice drops a few octaves during production. Tapliz was a late hire during pre-production but was an excellent choice for the role.
Tapliz as Wyrm personifies the way most of us feel going through puberty. Awkward and out of place. Wyrm is one of those kids you’d see eating alone during lunch, then someone would take a photo of him and post it on social media to mock him. Ah, but WYRM isn’t set in the age of social media. Nope. No Facebook. No Snapchat. No Twitter or Instagram. But they do have dial-up internet and Dot matrix printers.
Wyrm’s twin sister, Myrcella (Azure Brandi, reprising her role from the short), is entering womanhood, having been fingered by her Norwegian foreign exchange student boyfriend, Mads. They share a room and she wants Wyrm to move into their dead brother Dylan’s room so she can have her own space, and more alone time with her boyfriend. Their living conditions are not idyllic. Wyrm and Myrcella live with an uncle and his Spanish speaking girlfriend. Both their parents are absent and inattentive. Mom is off on a 1,000-mile walking hike, and dad is constipated and overworked.
If that wasn’t enough of an ordeal, Wyrm is growing up in a society where not having your first kiss by a certain time can be considered a disorder of sexual development. And his school system, and I’d imagine all others nationwide, mandates sex education as part of its “No Child Left Alone” school curriculum. (Is this Winterbauer extending a sardonic middle finger to the Congress enacted No Child Left Behind Act of the early 2000s?)
WYRM is chock full of such abnormalities, and that’s why drawing comparisons to other film works is a disservice. Winterbauer may have been influenced by Todd Solodnz and how the writer/director explores the murkiness of suburbia and its inhabitants, but WYRM’s world is less cynical and more resonant of how hard it is for some to function after tragedy strikes. Some leave completely. Others channel their grief into hate. Others try to find reason and understanding.
Christopher Winterbauer’s debut is a darkly funny film about how we have become Humpty Dumpty, either through a tragedy or our own doing, and how to piece ourselves back together. This is an honest look at grief and growing up in a world where getting an internet connection is easier than a human connection. So, like, now.
Director: Christopher Winterbauer
Cast: Theo Taplitz, Azure Brandi, Lulu Wilson, Samuel Faraci, Davey Johnson
Tags: Azure Brandi, Christopher Winterbauer, Davey Johnson, Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2019, Lulu Wilson, Napoleon Dynamite, Samuel Faraci, Theo Taplitz, Todd Solodnz, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Wyrm