Dark fantasy/creature feature Wildling is a terrific debut from director Fritz Böhm, boasting plenty of unexpected moments and anchored by a wonderful lead performance from Bel Powley as the titular character.
The film begins uncomfortably enough by showing the odd relationship between a very young girl named Anna (Aviva Winick) and her father (Brad Dourif in a fine, creepy performance). He tries to protect her from something mysterious and deadly to the point of not letting her go outside her bedroom, which comes complete with an electrified doorknob. After some disturbing events take place, a teenaged Anna eventually comes to the attention of the local authorities, including a sympathetic officer named Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler).
As Ellen temporarily takes Anna into her home and under her wing, surprising events slowly begin to unfold about the mysterious pasts of both Anna and her father, and a budding romance blossoms between the girl and Ellen’s younger brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). Anna begins to change physically and in her behavior and mannerisms, and the mystery of what she truly is catches up with her, despite her best efforts to suppress and hide those changes.
Wildling works beautifully as a coming-of-age tale told by way of a monster movie, similar to Ginger Snaps and The Company of Wolves. The screenplay by Böhm and co-writer Florian Eder is both suspenseful and sympathetic, allowing the character of Anna to be both enigmatic and vulnerable.
The heart of Wildling is Bel Powley’s outstanding performance as Anna. Quite often, her big, expressive eyes and subtle facial expressions are all that are needed to carry the impact of a scene. She goes from innocent and susceptible to frightened and in survival mode, to a variety of other places and nails every nuance. Her role calls for a good deal of physicality, as well, and she answers the call every time.
Toby Oliver’s cinematography is breathtaking, with the woods that surround the homes in this bucolic area gorgeously shot to maximum eerie effect. Paul Haslinger’s score and the crackerjack sound design add marvelously to the chilling world of the the film.
Creature-feature fans will be thrilled to know that the practical special effects and makeup look great. The gore effects are impressive without going overboard, part of the film’s winning approach to featuring sex and violence as vital parts of the storytelling, without lapsing into mere exploitation.
Wildling is a thoughtful exploration of the transition from girl to woman, the paternal fear of it, and the maternal empathy with it. It’s also a fine creature feature that delivers in the scare fare department. Böhm and his cast and crew have delivered a splendid tale of terror with a big heart.