Wildling – the directorial debut of Fritz Böhm – has its roots in the puberty/growing up horror of films like Raw or Carrie, where the true horror is the uncertainty of what’s inside one’s body. Wildling is too reverent to the films that came before it, playing in cliche after cliche, hinting at ideas we’ve seen before without ever doing anything unique with its portrayal.
While Wildling eventually becomes a trite take on previously seen concepts, it’s opening is a smart bit of misdirection and withholding information from the audience. Wildling builds to its worst ideas, but with its first act, Böhm throws the viewer into the action, forcing them to grasp what is happening and defying expectations with a smart introduction to this story that ultimately falls apart.
Wildling opens with a young girl Anna (who will grow up to be played by Bel Powley), being held captive in her bedroom by a man that is only known as “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). The first third of Wilding plays out a bit like Room, but with an even darker twist. Daddy tells Anna that she’s the only child left, and that there are monsters outside that might eat her, as they did all the other children. Daddy has electrocuted her door so she won’t leave, feeds her only heaping piles of vegetables, and frequently gives her injections to downgrade her estrogen so that she won’t reach adulthood.
When Anna escapes the clutches of Daddy, she experiences the outside world for the first time. Living with police officer Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) and her brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), Anna goes to school, her first party, and finally starts to become a woman. But Anna soon realizes that there was a reason Daddy was holding her captive.
By starting with such a intriguing mystery, Wildling keeps viewers guessing, throwing them into an ambiguous situation with unusual details that only increase the questions. It’s a bold move, but one that makes the dynamic between Anna and Daddy the strongest aspect of Wildling, and makes the film far weaker when this duo is split up early on. When writers Böhm and Floridian Eder then take this story into the “real world,” it’s hard not to be reminded of countless films that trade in similar ideas. Trapped in a room, Wildling can be unique enough, but in the freedom of the world, Wildling doesn’t have enough of its own ideas to work.
Wildling hits every trope imaginable from this scenario, be it the way the kids treat Anna in school, or how Anna’s ignorance at how the world works is played for laughs. But Wildling also sets up ideas that are just tossed aside, like when Anna makes a kind friend at school, hinting there might me something under the surface of what is being shown. The film sets up the dynamics of her new home, her new school, and several characters throughout the town that could have some bearing on Anna’s new life, ultimately discarding them to once again focus on the changes inside Anna, rather than the changes going on outside of her.
At times, Wildling does pretend like it can veer from what is expected, as at one point Anna and Ray go to a party that ends terribly, but the strange direction Wildling is going towards is more silly than riveting. Wildling’s big twist only works because of how it reveals past actions taken by Daddy and others in Anna’s world, but as the twist takes center stage, Böhm goes over-the-top in its concept and with terrible effects and lighting way that doesn’t do the idea justice.
Despite the weaknesses of Wildling, Powley and Dourif are quite good. Powley excels at wide-eyed, youthful confusion, and Dourif equally plays Daddy as a potential monster, even though his actions never have the malice one would expect in such a person. Both are playing roles that are seeped in uncertainty, and how they utilize this makes them the best part of an otherwise lackluster film.
Wildling wants to do something original with ideas as old as horror itself, but instead falls into the cliches it tries to escape. Böhm can’t keep up the intensity of his first act, as his film struggles to take its wild premise seriously the further Wildling goes. There’s a maturity to Wildling struggling to get out, but Böhm just keeps injecting it with moments that stunt this film’s growth and ambitions.