Identity is one of the most talked about topics in current times. You can go to Twitter and find all kinds of opinions regarding the matter, and the truth is that there isn’t one. The subject is as complicated as where consciousness comes from, and the discussions can get very heated. If there is something that is clearly true is that finding our identity and being comfortable with it is part of every healthy life. The Wild Man is a film that tries to talk about this complex subject in a more real and understated manner.
The Wild Man is directed by Riley Cusick and stars Riley Cusick himself in the title role, Larry Fessenden and Jenna Kanell. The film tells the story of Scott, a young man whose life has basically stopped because he has to take care of his father. His father suffers from a mental condition that doesn’t allow him to be part of normal human society. Scott’s father identifies and acts like an animal. The film explores the situation has Scott needs to decide if moving with his life or just keep taking care of his father.
The Wild Man marks all the boxes of a festival independent film production. For example, the film carries this naturalistic cinematography from beginning to end. There are also plenty of shots mixing the iconography of a small town with nature, and there are also plenty of gentle musical cues that remind of a Death Cab For Cutie record. On top of that, the film’s plot is certainly focused on feelings and how those feelings can be of benefit or detriment to our social life.
There is nothing wrong with The Wild Man checking all these boxes, a movie works or doesn’t depend on other factors. However, in terms of presentation, The Wild Man feels very much like countless other films that move around the festival circuit. Cusick is really pushing his own writer/director agenda. This is very good for him, but he needs to come off with stronger material to stand out in the circuit and make him a name we can look forward to seeing on the screen.
The Wild Man meanders around the subject of identity and uses it as a backdrop for the story of a character that has to face a big internal conflict. This is very compelling as the subject is very much in vogue. However, the movie presents such an extreme case that in most cases there wouldn’t be much discussion that what is happening here is not OK. Scott’s father believes he is a bear, he identifies as such, and because his behavior then also transmutes to that of a wild animal, he is incapable of functioning in human society.
A more nuanced example of what is going on right now with personal identity would have made for a more grounded and compelling story. If a person’s own definition of identity clashes this way against society and there are not particularly good points to allow something like this to happen, then the entire conflict just falls apart. Scott’s father cannot communicate, he can frighten and even be violent towards other people, and he doesn’t take his bear suit, which is an entirely different issue regarding sanitary guidelines and such.
So, when the movie tries to pass Scott’s conflict as a situation where he needs to choose if he can keep taking care of his or if he needs professional help dealing with him, Scott’s indecision becomes quite frustrating. Someone could argue that it is an individual decision how to deal with this matter, but when it is clear that Scott’s father, the titular, Wild Man, can be hurtful to others, all the ties are broken. The decision is very clear, so having to deal with a character struggling so much with that is a bit boring.
Cusick’s direction isn’t particularly interesting, but he does a good job on camera. The character of Scott asks him to be very stoic, a person that is clearly broken and lost in life. He does this to a great effect. Fessenden also does a great job in the role of the crazy uncle who actually has a heart of gold, but whose life is a bit of a big mess. The two actors work very well together, and they manage to create some of the most emotional scenes in the film.
Jenna Kanell is the stand-out actor in the movie. She doesn’t only have a very interesting look, but her performance packs a heavy punch without ever having to be loud or over-expressive. Her character’s backstory remains mostly a mystery, but thanks to Kanell and her fantastic voice, some of those hints come to lie as subtext. It is really amazing. Let’s hope this movie can open her door to more opportunities in the future.
In the end, The Wild Man doesn’t really manage to do what it means to do. The subject is too complicated and nuanced to be able to be explored by something so blunt as this movie’s premise. The film still has some really solid performances, including a fantastic one by Jenna Kanell. Cusick has the potential to be a voice in independent cinema in the ways that Jim Cummins is doing with these films nowadays. Let’s hope he can come up with stronger material that can push his talents to a new level.