'Wildling' Review: A Creature Feature About The Fear Of Teenage Sexuality [SXSW]

Wildling is Fritz Böhm's first feature film, and it's such an assured debut, darkly mystical and elegant. This nighttime fairy tale tells the story of Anna (Bel Powley), a young woman who's spent much of her life locked in a room like Rapunzel, with only "Daddy" (Lord of the Rings' Brad Dourif, in an equally untrustworthy role) as company.

Daddy treats Anna with tenderness, warning her against "the wildling" that stalks the woods surrounding their remote fairy tale tower. He seems loving and protective – but he's also keeping Anna in seclusion. We watch her grow from toddlerhood to young womanhood in the confines of the same tiny room – and all the while we keep seeing Daddy inject a mysterious substance into Anna's tummy. These opening scenes are disorienting, diving right into the narrative instead of offering any tidy context, immediately eliciting intrigue and perplexity from the audience. The context comes later, as Wildling's story grows clearer but never less strange.

Eventually, circumstances arise that free Anna, and she makes her way to a nearby small town, baffled by everything she sees, this grand, scary world outside the four walls she's always known. The town's sheriff (Liv Tyler as Ellen) takes Anna under her temporary custody, horrified by the girl's tragic history. Ellen learns that Daddy was injecting Anna with hormones to keep her from arriving at sexual maturity, and under the safety of Ellen's roof, Anna is finally allowed to reach puberty, at the same time growing closer to Ellen's teen brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet).

Anna's story grows much twistier at this point, and we spend the rest of the film watching this wide-eyed young woman navigate the precarious territory of sexual adolescence, with a darkly supernatural element complicating matters. Powley has a childlike, otherworldly quality about her beauty, and her movements are delicate and vulnerable as a newborn fawn's. She and Tyler make a lovely duo, with Tyler's innate warmth surrounding Powley, this protective aura around a girl who has been through so much, and who both needs and deserves the love of a mother figure after her abject treatment from Daddy.

As much as this is a beautiful story about the importance of sisterhood in the journey from child to woman, it's also a really cool monster movie that goes to some very weird and creepy places. The creature effects are pretty great, and The Wildling never shies away from gore, violence or sex – but it's all presented in such a deliberate, graceful way, never exploitative of this tricky subject matter.

It's a lovely film to look at, with lush, macabre cinematography from Get Out's Toby Oliver. Almost every shot feels like something out of Germany's Black Forest, the birthplace of fairy tales, wild and gorgeous and dangerous. Paul Haslinger's score is unnerving, as is the sound design, all culminating in a film that always feels fabled, a strange, beautiful tableau in which we become lost and can never be too comfortable. It goes to some unsuspecting places, but never loses the heart of an intimate, coming-of-age story that just so happens to feature monsters.

Wildling is, at its center, a story about the fear fathers have of their daughters' sexuality, and the great and ultimately misguided lengths they will go to in order to keep their little girls little forever. (In a very weird way, it would make an interesting double feature with SXSW's headliner comedy Blockers for that reason.) Liv Tyler's Ellen is a beacon of reason here, the wise and loving matriarch who understands that Anna must be able to reach womanhood regardless of the complications that might come with that growth. It's a really smart approach to an ageless tale, and putting aside all deeper meaning, Wildling works on its surface as a cool and spooky monster movie with great performances and some extremely effective gore.

Wildling hits theaters on April 13, 2018.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10