Review: ‘The True Adventures of Wolfboy,’ starring Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina, Eve Hewson, Sophie Giannamore, Chloë Sevigny and John Turturro

November 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy”

Directed by Martin Krejcí

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and in Pennsylvania, the dramatic film “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy with an unusually hairy face runs away from home to find his estranged mother, who abandoned him.

Culture Audience: “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” will appeal primarily to people who like somewhat quirky movies that have surrealistic qualities.

Jaeden Martell and Sophie Giannamore in “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The dramatic film “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” has its heart in the right place, but it’s expressed in a somewhat erratic way that leaves the movie feeling slightly off-kilter, only to be set on the right track by admirable performances by the some of the cast members. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a straight-ahead drama or a fantasy tale. Fortunately, the performances of most of the actors are worth seeing in this coming-of-age story that can be rambling and unfocused but redeems itself with the emotionally touching moments in the last third of the film.

Directed by Martin Krejcí and written by Olivia Dufault in their feature-film debut, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” centers on a 13-year-old boy named Paul Harker (played by Jaeden Martell), who has a biological condition called hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth all over his body, including his face. Cutting the hair only makes it grow even more. Paul, who is an only child, lives in a modest house somewhere in New York state with his single father Denny (played by Chris Messina), who’s a sanitation worker/garbage collector.

Paul’s mother Jen (played by Chloë Sevigny) abandoned Paul and Denny years ago. It’s implied later in the story that Jen left when Paul was a baby and has not been in contact with him since. The movie begins on Paul’s 13th birthday, when he is staring at himself in a mirror and saying out loud: “I’m a regular kid. I’m just like everyone else. I’m a normal kid.”

For Paul’s birthday, Denny takes him to a carnival that’s nearby. Because Paul is self-conscious about his face, he often wears a ski mask in public. Denny has been teaching Paul to build his self-confidence, by trying to instill in Paul that he should conduct himself with “dignity.” He also advises Paul: “When you’re scared, you don’t run.”

That advice is easier said than done when shortly after they arrive at the carnival and are standing in line for an amusement-park ride, Paul is confronted by a three male bullies who are around his age. One of the brats is named Buck (played by Colin Patrick Farrell), who asks Denny, in reference to Paul’s mother: “How did it feel? To screw that dog?” And then he and his pals run away laughing.

After that awkward experience, Denny tells Paul that he needs to take off his ski cap while they are waiting in line. Paul reluctantly takes off the cap and braces himself for the stares and rude comments that he knows that he will get when people see his hairy face. Denny momentarily walks away, and the bullies come back and further taunt Paul by saying that his mother is a dog.

The three obnoxious teens then chase Paul away from the line, and he hides in a portable toilet, where the bullies come after him and yell at Paul by ordering him to bark like a dog. It’s a humiliating experience that Paul is very angry about when he and Denny are at home later. Denny can only say that he’s sorry that it happened while he tries to comfort his son.

Paul gets even angrier when Denny shows him a promotional video for Griffin School, a private learning institution for special-needs kids. Denny makes its clear that he wants Paul to go to the school. Paul’s reacts by telling Denny in a hostile tone of voice, “I think if you send me to this school, I’ll burn it to the ground.”

As a birthday gift, Denny gives Paul a watch. But there’s something else that Paul gets on his birthday that’s more important to him. A wrapped gift has arrived mysteriously at the house. When Paul opens the gift, he finds a map with a red line that’s drawn from where he lives in New York state to a city in Pennsylvania. On the map, are the handwritten words: “When you’re ready, there’s an explanation.” The gift doesn’t come with a return address or a name, so Paul assumes that the gift is from his mother.

Denny asks a very resistant Paul to try on the Griffin School uniform. Paul says to Denny, “Mom would never make me go to this school.” In exasperation, Denny blurts out, “If she cared so much about you, why’d she leave?”

It’s the type of comment that Denny immediately regrets saying, and he makes a sincere apology to Paul. Denny explains that the subject of Paul’s mother is a sore subject and he just doesn’t want to talk about her. He also asks Paul not to talk about her either.

Upstairs in his bedroom at night, Paul is feeling lonely and miserable. And so, he climbs out of his bedroom window, while still in the school uniform, and runs away from home. Paul goes directly to the carnival, where he meets the carnival’s sleazy owner Mr. Silk (played by John Turturro), who wears his long gray hair in a ponytail and has the demeanor of a con artist who can’t be trusted.

Paul asks Mr. Silk if he knows how to get to Pennsylvania. When Paul takes off his ski mask, Mr. Silk comments on Paul’s face: “Wow, that is some kind of beautiful.” Mr. Silk senses Paul’s vulnerability and figures out immediately that Paul is a runaway. He tells Paul that if Paul does a “partnership” with him, Paul can will make “enough money to get to Pennsylvania 10 times over.”

It should come as no surprise that Mr. Silk wants to exploit Paul by making him a “freak” sideshow act for the carnival. Paul is very reluctant to agree to being labeled as a Dangerous Dog Boy (which is the name that Mr. Silk gives him), but Paul eventually caves in to the pressure from Mr. Silk because Paul needs the money. Meanwhile, Denny has filed a missing-persons report about Paul with the local police, who send a cop named Officer Pollok (played by Michelle Wilson) to interview Denny and investigate Paul’s disappearance.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” screenplay has some glaring plot holes and flaws that lower the quality of the movie. For example, Paul (who has a very distinctive face that would make him stand out anywhere) is supposed to be missing for several days. And yet, the police don’t find out that boy who fits the exact description of Paul is working as a sideshow act at the carnival in town—the same carnival where Paul was last seen in public.

Not long after working at the carnival, Paul finds out that Mr. Silk is not going to pay him. And so, out of revenge, Paul steals some of the carnival’s cash and burns the carnival to the ground before running away again. It won’t be the last time that viewers will see of Mr. Silk, who decides he’s going to track down Paul. Now that Mr. Silk’s entire business has been destroyed in the fire, he’s got a lot of time on his hands.

The arson is also another reason why the police are looking for Paul, although the police’s shoddy investigation into his disappearance is why this movie’s story is able to stretch out for as long as it does. Immediately after the arson, Paul hides in a doghouse of a random stranger’s backyard.

When he wakes up the next morning, he sees a girl who’s wearing a swimming cap, playing in a ring tube filled with bubbles, and she’s singing like a mystical siren. The movie, which is introduced in chapters with title cards in a format similar to a 19th century European children’s book, calls this chapter “Wolfboy Meets a Mermaid.” The girl isn’t a real mermaid, but she often dresses as if she wants to be a mermaid.

The girl sees Paul come out of the doghouse and is so startled, that she screams and runs into her house. She can see him from a second-floor window, and Paul asks her for something to eat. She throws a sandwich out of the window to him. Shortly afterward, she decides to return to the backyard to talk to Paul.

She introduces herself as Aristiana (played Sophie Giannamore), and Paul immediately insults her by telling her that she has a stupid name. She retorts, “For the record, you’re trespassing,” He comments on her singing, “For the record, you sound like shit.” Aristiana responds by making a remark about Paul’s face, “Just because you look like that doesn’t give you permission to be a dick.”

If you’ve seen enough movies with this type of banter, you know exactly where Aristiana and Paul’s relationship is going to go. Aristiana and Paul end up running away together in his quest to find his mother. However, this isn’t a typical teen romance seen in movies, because it’s very casually mentioned at some point in the story that Aristiana is a transgender girl. Paul immediately accepts her as a girl, but there’s one point in the story when he gets angry at her and calls her a “boy.”

Does Paul end up finding his mother? (That question is answered in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be spoiled in this review.) Will the police or Mr. Silk find Paul? And if so, who will find Paul first? Those questions are answered in rest of the movie, which includes some scenes of Aristiana taking Paul to a bar that’s a hangout for misfits.

The bar allows underage people to drink alcohol and smoke. It’s at this bar where for the first time, Paul sees Aristiana sing in front of an audience, and he’s awed by her. Paul later tells Aristiana that he didn’t mean what he said earlier when he told her that she wasn’t a good singer.

And it’s at this bar that Paul gets drunk for the first time. It’s also where Paul meets an acquaintance of Aristiana: a rebellious thief named Rose (played by Eve Hewson), who is in her 20s, has hot-pink hair, and wears an eyepatch. Rose ends up taking Paul and Aristiana on an armed robbery spree, which is briefly shown in the movie’s trailer.

“The True Adventures of Wolfboy” tries a little too hard to be whimsical and quirky, like it was going for the same tone as director Tim Burton’s 2003 film “Big Fish.” But at times, this effort for “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” to be unusual comes across as a bit too contrived and hollow. The performances from the film’s main cast members are what make watching the film worthwhile, because there are scenarios in this movie that have been done a lot better in other films. And there is indeed a “fairy tale” aspect to the story, since Paul doesn’t face any legal consequences from the crimes he commits.

Martell is a wonderfully talented actor who elevates the material that he’s been given in almost everything he does. His performance is by far the best thing about “The True Adventures of Wolfboy.” (Paul’s “wolf” look is achieved by some fairly impressive hair and makeup.) Giannamore is also a standout as the precocious Aristiana.

Turturro hams it up a little too much for him to be taken seriously as a villain. Mr. Silk has the ability to suddenly and unrealistically appear in places, which will make people wonder if he’s fully human or not. Messina’s Denny character shows hints of deep emotional pain, but Denny isn’t in the movie enough for viewers to really get a full picture of who he is. In other words, Messina’s talent is wasted in this film.

The character of Rose isn’t very well-written. Rose is essentially there because she has a car and she’s old enough to drive, thereby giving Paul and Aristiana a means to travel faster than if they were stuck taking public transportation. Rose introduces Paul and Aristiana to a life of armed robbery, but her character is so underdeveloped that she comes across as an unnecessary “third wheel” to Paul and Aristiana.

Krejcí’s direction makes “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” look better than much of the actual dialogue and the structure of the screenplay. The last 20 minutes of the movie are where it shines the most. Just like the hair all over Paul’s face can distract people from seeing his true character, so too does “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” have a lot of distracting clutter that people need to weed through to get to the heart of the story.

Vertical Releasing released “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” on digital and VOD on October 30, 2020.

Review: ‘The Lodge,’ starring Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage and Alicia Silverstone

February 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh In “The Lodge” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Lodge”

Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. suburb, the psychologicial horror film “The Lodge” has a cast of characters that are white and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two underage children have resentment toward their father’s mysterious girlfriend, whom the children blame for their mother’s death.

Culture Audience: “The Lodge,” which is an arthouse version of a Lifetime movie, will appeal primarily to horror fans who like movies to be simple and very predictable.

Riley Keough In “The Lodge” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

If “The Lodge” were a Lifetime movie, the title would be “The Wrong Babysitter: Trapped in the Snow.” In their first English-language film, Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (the duo who helmed the chilling 2014 horror film “Goodnight Mommy”) have taken a concept that’s fairly similar to “Goodnight Mommy”—two children and a woman isolated in a house—and made a watered-down, formulaic version of that idea. That’s not to say that “The Lodge” is a terrible movie, because the actors elevate a very sparse screenplay, which was co-written by Franz, Fiala and Sergio Casci. But because “The Lodge” telegraphs the villain’s intentions so early on in the story, it’s resulted in an utterly predictable film that breaks no new ground whatsoever.

The beginning of the movie is the most interesting, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Laura Hall (played by Alicia Silverstone) is seen driving her two kids—17-year-old Aiden (played by Jaeden Martell) and 12-year-old Mia (played by Lia McHugh)—to a visit with the kids’ father, Laura’s estranged husband Richard (played by by Richard Armitage). As soon as they arrive, a tense Richard sends the kids off to get some candy at a nearby store because he says he wants to have a private talk with Laura.

During their conversation, Richard tells Laura that he wants to finalize their divorce because he wants to marry his girlfriend Grace. Laura’s devastated reaction indicates that she had been hoping that she and Richard were going to reconcile. The movie doesn’t come right out and say how long Richard and Laura have been separated and what caused their breakup, but it’s implied that Richard, who’s a newspaper journalist, left Laura for Grace, and it’s caused a lot of turmoil in the family.

That turmoil is evident in the car on the way to the visit, when Aiden makes it very clear that he despises Grace, because he tells his mother that he doesn’t even want to be around his dad’s girlfriend. Aiden dislikes her so much that he won’t even say her name. And when Richard and Laura are alone together at his place for their private talk, he reassures Laura before he begins the conversation: “She isn’t here.”

Within the first 10 minutes of the film, a tragedy occurs that results in Laura’s death. The heartbroken children find little comfort from their guilt-ridden father, because they partially blame him for their mother’s death. The other person the children blame is the mysterious Grace (played by Riley Keough), who doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes in the film, when Richard and the kids are about to take a family trip with her.

How did this fateful trip happen? Six months after Laura’s funeral, Richard nervously asks Aiden and Mia if it would be okay for Grace to come with them to their family lodge for the Christmas holiday season. The kids immediately say no. It’s not the response that Richard had hoped for, so he then puts the kids on a guilt trip by saying that they’re not giving Grace a chance to be a part of their family.

It’s at this time that Richard tells the children that he and Grace are getting married. And, of course, the kids take the news about as well as children being told that they have to live with an evil witch. Eventually, Richard loses patience with the kids’ stubborn refusal to accept Grace. He tells them that Grace will be spending the holidays with them at the lodge, so the kids have little choice but to accept those plans.

Before the trip, Aiden and Mia do some digging around on the Internet and find out that a rumor they heard about Grace is true: She used to be in a religious cult, where all the members except for Grace committed suicide when Grace was 12. There’s some eerie “found footage” of the mass suicide scene with Grace being discovered among the bodies, which have tape over their mouths and the word “sin” written on the tape. The kids also find Internet videos of the cult leader, a menacing-looking bearded priest, who’s portrayed in the movie by Riley Keough’s real-life father, Danny Keough.

Although the movie wants to establish that Aiden and Mia are bright young amateur detectives, this part of the story doesn’t have much credibility. In real life, the kids would’ve found out this information about Grace on the Internet as soon as they knew that their father was seriously dating her, and especially if that relationship broke up their parents’ marriage. It just doesn’t ring true that the kids would be curious about Grace’s background only after their mother’s death.

The kids don’t tell their father what they found out about Grace, which might seem odd, but that’s probably because the kids have a distant and tense relationship with their father since their mother died. It’s already been established that the children don’t like or trust Grace, and their father probably knows about Grace’s past but still wants to be with her, so the kids probably thought telling him this information wouldn’t change his mind. At any rate, neither Richard nor Grace discusses Grace’s past at all in this movie.

When Grace finally appears on screen, she seems to be the prototype of the “pretty younger girlfriend who ends up being a second wife.” But the way she’s written for this movie, she’s an incomplete sketch of a character. She’s generically pleasant on the surface, but there’s no mention of any interests that she has and what she’s doing with her life.

Although “The Lodge” screenwriters must have thought that keeping Grace so mysterious would benefit the story, it actually makes Grace a character that viewers won’t care about at all because she has no real personality. There’s no sense of how she was able to get into Richard’s life, what her previous relationships were like, and how she really feels about becoming a stepmother.

Grace is awkwardly polite to the kids as she tries to establish a rapport with them, but she also doesn’t acknowledge the impact that Laura had on the lives of the children and Richard. It’s almost as if she wants Laura to be erased from their lives—and that lack of empathy is a further indication of what Grace’s role is in this story.

However, there are so many questions that this movie puts forth but never answers: What was Grace’s life after the mass suicide? Why does Richard want to marry her, even knowing how much the marriage will hurt his kids? Is Grace just going to be a trophy wife or does she bring something more substantial to their relationship? Did she have any siblings? What were her parents like and how did they end up in the cult?

Because Grace’s personality is such an empty abyss and because the movie implies that she’s a “homewrecker,” it’s very clear that she’s going to be the story’s villain. And it’s also very obvious that things are not going to go well at the lodge when Richard suddenly has to leave for a few days because of a work-related matter, thereby leaving the kids alone with Grace. And before he leaves, he’s shown Grace the “family heirloom” gun and how to use it. To his surprise (but not to viewers’ surprise), she handles the gun like a pro during target practice.

And because these children are left alone with Grace, there’s only one way for the movie to go. The direction of the story is made even more obvious in the movie’s trailers. In the meantime, there’s a lot of flashbacks to the creepy leader of the cult, as his voice is heard echoing his stern orders: “Repent. Repent your sins.” There are some shadowy figures and strange messages scrawled on mirrors, but is it reality or it is something else?

When a blizzard hits the area, the power generator gets frozen, leaving the lodge without electricity. And that’s when weird things really start to happen. The contents of the refrigerator disappear. So do all the items in Grace’s drawers. And so does her dog that she brought on the trip. She blames the kids, who swear that they didn’t do anything wrong.

Riley Keough as Grace does a very good job with the limited character that she’s been given. Keough comes from a showbiz family—she’s the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and the eldest daughter of Lisa Marie Presley—and as an actress, she’s been doing solid appearances in mostly independent films. Martell (who’s best known for being in the “It” movies) is the movie’s other standout actor. He does a convincing portrayal of the emotionally wounded Aiden, who tries to be strong and protective of his younger sister. While Mia slowly warms up to Grace, Aiden never fully trusts Grace.

The pacing of “The Lodge” is meant to bring a slow burn to its suspense, but the movie seems to forget there’s really no suspense at all to this story and its inevitable ending. In between, there’s a lot of filler that has the intended spookiness, but the scares have been done much better in other “trapped in a snowstorm” horror flicks, most notably in 1980’s “The Shining” and 1982’s “The Thing.” Because of all that filler, “The Lodge” would have been much better-off as a short film with a length of less than 30 minutes.

Neon will release “The Lodge” in select U.S. cinemas on February 7, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Low Tide’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jaeden Martell and Keean Johnson in “Low Tide” (Photo courtesy of A24 Films)

“Low Tide”

Directed by Kevin McMullin

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The Jersey Shore in the dramatic thriller “Low Tide” isn’t at all like what’s portrayed in dumbed-down reality TV shows filled with argumentative, fame-hungry people who don’t want real jobs. “Low Tide” (the first feature film from writer/director Kevin McMullin, a New Jersey native) is told from the perspective of 1980s working-class teenagers, who have simmering resentment of the well-to-do people who vacation on the Jersey Shore. The locals have a name for these wealthy interlopers: “benny,” because they usually come from the nearby cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.

The local residents need the wealthy vacationers (who often have second homes on the Jersey Shore) to keep the local economy going. The money that flows in during peak season is needed during slower seasons. It’s a cycle that often keeps the working-class locals stuck in a co-dependent rut with the rich people who spend money on their goods and services.

In this environment of tension over class and wealth, three local teen rebels—Alan (played by Keean Johnson), Red (played by Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (played Daniel Zolghadri)—commit burglaries together in unoccupied houses owned by the type of privileged people who use the Jersey Shore as a place for another home or other real-estate investments. Alan is the heartthrob of the group, Red is the bullying leader, and Smitty is the scrawny runt who’s constantly trying to prove his merits to Alan and Red.

The movie begins with the trio almost getting caught during a botched burglary. While escaping, Smitty jumps off of a roof and breaks his foot, but he’s carried to safety by his two friends. In the panicked confusion, Smitty accidentally leaves one of his shoes behind at the scene of the crime. It’s a mistake that will come back to haunt them later in the story. Smitty’s hobbling around town on crutches doesn’t go unnoticed by Sergeant Kent (played by Shea Whigham), the local cop who’s investigating the burglaries.

It’s summer, and these high schoolers have a lot of time on their hands. In between making mischief, they go to the beach, boardwalk and other local hangouts, where Alan meets and becomes attracted to a pretty teen named Mary (played by Kristine Froseth), who (somewhat predictably) happens to be in the benny crowd . Alan strikes up a budding romance with Mary, while they both try to ignore the differences in their socioeconomic status. He isn’t exactly the smartest guy in the room, so he doesn’t notice that Red is also interested in Mary—or he’s at least jealous that Alan might be accepted into a benny social circle, while the rich kids in town treat Red like a dirtbag.

Meanwhile, the police use Smitty’s lost shoe as evidence to bust him for the botched burglary. Even though Smitty has been arrested and let out on bail, he won’t snitch on his friends. Smitty’s broken foot and arrest have put the three friends’ crime spree on hold. But when they find out that a wealthy elderly recluse has died and has left behind an unoccupied house, it’s a temptation they find hard to resist.

With Smitty out of commission, Alan enlists his younger, well-behaved brother Peter (played by Jaeden Martell), who reluctantly agrees to replace Smitty as their lookout during the burglary. After breaking into the house, Peter and Alan find a bag of rare gold coins. This time, the police catch them in the act of the burglary—Alan is arrested, but Peter and Red narrowly escape from the scene of the crime in separate ways. Unbeknownst to Red, Peter has kept the bag of coins and has hidden the loot in a secluded, wooded area near the beach.

After Alan is released on bail, Peter shares his secret about the coins with Alan. The two brothers decide to lie and tell Red and Smitty that they didn’t take any valuables found at the house because they had been interrupted by the police. Alan and Peter then take a few of the coins to get appraised at a local pawn shop, and they discover (based on the estimates) that the coins are worth a total of about $100,000.

Alan is eager to sell the coins, but Peter cautions that they can’t do too much too soon with the coins, or else it will raise suspicions. They bitterly argue over how to cash in on their stolen haul and how much money should be spent. The conflict leads Peter to doubt if he can trust Alan.

Meanwhile, the police are building a case against this group of teenage thieves (in this relatively small beach city, it’s easy to know who hangs out with each other), and it isn’t long before the cops and other members of the community find out that the dead man had some valuable coins that have gone missing from his house. The rest of the movie is filled with tension over secrets, lies and betrayal, as Red and Smitty begin to wonder if Peter really has the stolen coins, and if anyone in the group will snitch about the burglaries. Red, who has a history of being a violent thug, is also seething with anger when he notices that Alan and Mary have gotten closer.

“Low Tide” isn’t a groundbreaking film—the movie’s screenplay and production use a lot of familiar tropes—but the story is elevated by the believable performances of the cast. Martell (who played Losers Club member Bill Denbrough in the 2017 horror blockbuster film “It”) is a particular standout, since he brings an intelligent sensitivity to the role. Peter is younger than the teenage boys who’ve lured him into their criminal mess, but he’s wiser and has more inner strength than they do. In that sense, “Low Tide” is also an authentic portrait of coming-of-age masculinity in a pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era when teenagers didn’t need social media to validate themselves. “Low Tide” is a crime thriller, but the movie is also a compelling look at how these boys make decisions that will have a profound effect on the type the men that they will become.

UPDATE: A24 Films will release “Low Tide” in select U.S. theaters on October 4, 2019.