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‘The True Adventures of Wolfboy’ a modern coming of age fable

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My affinity for coming of age stories is well-documented at this point. And if you can endow those stories with elements of the fantastic, well – so much the better.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy,” directed by Martin Krejci from a script by Olivia Dufault, is one such story, a modern-day fairy tale of sorts that takes a look at the many ways we can be different … and how coming to terms with those differences is a big part of growing up. It’s whimsical and sweet while also offering up a few sinister moments – just like the best from the Brothers Grimm.

Being a kid is hard. It has always been hard. Yes, the ways in which it is hard have changed over the years, but the basic difficulty never has. Being different on top of that is a challenge – one addressed with charm and affection here. While it never delves as deep as it might, choosing instead to stay close to the surface, it still manages to feel engaging and enlightened.

Paul (Jaeden Martell, “Knives Out”) is a 12-year-old boy living in upstate New York. He has a rare genetic condition, one that causes him to grow hair all over – a disorder that gives him the appearance of a werewolf. He lives with his father Denny (Chris Messina, “She Dies Tomorrow”), a garbageman; he has never met his mother, knowing only that she left the family following his birth.

Paul is shy, embarrassed by his condition despite his father’s attempts to normalize it. The fact that he’s constantly bullied certainly doesn’t help. And so he’s resigned to a life of loneliness; his dad is even looking to send him away to a different, special school. But when a mysterious gift arrives for his birthday – from his mom – the adventure begins; the box contains a map, leading to an address in Pennsylvania where they might reunite.

Without a second thought, Paul runs away. He first heads to where a touring carnival has set up shop; he winds up meeting the carnival’s owner, a shady character named Mr. Silk (John Turturro, TV’s “The Plot Against America”) who sees Paul’s appearance as a potentially lucrative opportunity. But when that relationship quickly sours, Paul flees, though Mr. Silk is not one to give up so easily.

Paul stumbles upon Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore’s feature debut) in her backyard. Swept up in the worldliness of this peer, he accompanies her to a gig – a bubble-blowing lip synch performance at a gay bar where he meets another friend of Aristiana, an coarse-talking eye-patched redhead named Rose (Eve Hewson, “Tesla”). Aristiana and Rose agree to help him on his quest, hopping into Rose’s van and heading to Pennsylvania.

All the while, people are looking for Paul. His dad, Mr. Silk, the police – but there’s only one person out there by whom Paul wants to be found. And he’s on his way to her – but what will he find when he arrives? And will it be enough to fill the hole in his heart? Will he get what he needs from this adventure?

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is a thoughtful, gentle look at what it means to be a kid who is different. There’s the overt otherness of Paul, of course, but there are plenty of other young people in this story who are dealing with differences of their own – and all struggle with the realities of those differences. It treats the emotions of its young heroes with respect, allowing for a story that offers genuine feelings (even if the narrative is a bit thin in spots).

There’s an intimacy to the relationships in this movie that helps to sell the imagined grandness of the journey being undertaken. When you’ve never gone anywhere or done anything – have been in fact afraid to go or do – a trip to Pennsylvania might as well be a trip to the castle or the Shire or the moon. It’s the largest undertaking of Paul’s life; the filmmakers do a good job endowing it with that scale even as they embrace the intimate nature of the relationships involved. It’s a visually stylish film as well – the interstitial sideshow-style title cards are a delight.

None of this is anything if you don’t have quality performances from the youngsters, by the way. Sure, getting good work from pros like Messina and Turturro is important – Turturro especially looks like he’s having some fun gnawing on the scenery – but the success of a project like this relies heavily on the leads. Martell is an extremely talented young actor – one of the better ones of his particularly-gifted generation – and does a wonderful job capturing the isolating sadness of Paul’s life. It’s a role that asks a lot and he delivers. Giannamore glows with a preternatural sweetness, a gentle charm that makes her a delight to watch. The fact that there’s a little bit of an edge there as well is the icing on the cake. Hewson makes some big and weird choices as Rose, but it definitely works – she’s eccentric without being off-putting. The central friendship between Paul and Aristiana is as lovely as anything you’ll see on a screen.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” might have benefitted from pushing more into the realm of magical realism, but that’s a minor quibble. As a fable, it works. It’s a story of what it means to feel lost, to feel different … and how much it can mean when there’s someone you can trust to share that burden.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2020 21:28

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