Too many films get assigned the term “coming of age,” an overused catch-all for any story in which a young man or woman experiences something new. Wildlike has been tagged with that description, and it’s a lazy choice; for the girl at the center of the movie, this isn’t her coming of age — it’s her survival, emotionally and physically. Regarding Wildlike as anything less makes it sound quaint, and minimizes the impact of a fine film.
Alaska is the movie’s setting, a choice locale for a girl who’s alone and isolated like Mackenzie (Ella Purnell). Her dad has died, her mom’s checked in to rehab, and she’s been shipped off from Seattle to an uncle in the 49th state. He seems gentle at first – sincere, thoughtful, bringing her out of her shell. But he also feels compelled to sneak into Mackenzie’s bedroom at night and molest her. Character actor Brian Geraghty successfully taps into the complexity of the uncle, playing out the contradiction and sickness.
There aren’t a lot of clues, but you can almost feel the trouble coming. Filmmaker Frank Hall Green provides a small, pressing tension from the very start, with no reliance on foreboding music or telegraphed close-ups. Green recalls the feel of Martha Marcy May Marlene, another subdued tale of a lone woman suffering abuse at the hands of a male father figure.
When Mackenzie spies a chance to bolt from her uncle, she takes it, and that’s where her survivalist gene emerges. She hops into a hatchback to get some sleep and breaks into hotel rooms. She lies easily and knows when to change her name. Her sneaky moves get in the way of Bart (Bruce Greenwood), a widower who’s trying to find his own peace and identity by trekking through Denali National Park for a few days. Mackenzie’s persistence, and physical lack of direction, turns Bart’s solo adventure into a twosome.
Here’s the typical next step in a narrative like this: We take in the grandeur of Denali while a unique relationship blossoms between two unlikely friends. That’s there, but thankfully, in small doses. Green succeeds in keeping the obvious at bay, or at least keeping a governor on it all. He doesn’t linger on the vistas or play up the contrast between natural beauty and inner conflict. And there are no grand proclamations of camaraderie – if anything, Greenwood always seems slightly annoyed by Mackenzie’s presence. She’s the pesky little sister who wants you to buy her beer, and is willing to try something even more dangerous.
The tension that Green sets up early never really goes away, and that’s a plus as Wildlike moves back outside of the park and back into civilization for its consistently quiet finale. It’s a little tough to buy into all of Mackenzie’s decisions though, and that’s where Wildlike slides around. There’s an unexplained convenience to some of the connections from scene to scene, and Mackenzie’s path seems to go in a circle that best serves the story rather than her own well-being.
But Green has a small accomplishment here, and you can see why Wildlike has been embraced by much of the film festival community. In addition to having a daring female protagonist, it has a homemade sensibility, a humility that tamps down on any flash and keeps it simple. Alaska has seasons to endure and challenges to manage, and so does Mackenzie.