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 mask while they are waiting in line. Paul reluctantly takes off the mask 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 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: ‘Premature’ (2020), starring Zora Howard and Joshua Boone

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joshua Boone and Zora Howard in “Premature” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Premature” (2020)

Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the predominantly African American cast of characters, who are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, represent the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The main characters have to decide if they’ll go to college or do other things with their lives.

Culture Audience: “Premature” will appeal to viewers looking for a well-acted African American story, but the movie recycles the same, often-negative clichés about young black people in urban settings.

Zora Howard and Joshua Boone in “Premature” (Photo by Laura Valladao)

Here’s the thing about movies with predominantly African American casts: Too many of them show black people in crime-ridden areas, where they’re at risk of being criminals too, if they aren’t criminals already. There’s at least one single mother who’s constantly yelling at her kid(s), perpetuating the “angry black woman” image and the image that black men abandon their kids. These are tired and lazy stereotypes that are perpetuated by too many filmmakers, even African American filmmakers.

The reality is that African Americans are much more diverse that what’s depicted in movies. Most African Americans aren’t poor and aren’t criminals. Most African American men aren’t deadbeat losers. Most African American women aren’t single mothers by the time they’re 21.

The challenge for filmmakers is to show more of that diversity and stop falling back on overused tropes that fuel a lot of damaging racist agendas. That doesn’t mean dismissing the very real struggles of African Americans, because these struggles need to be shown on screen. But there’s no creativity in doing that over and over and ignoring many other aspects of African American life that aren’t about criminal activity or unplanned pregnancies.

With all that said, the African American drama “Premature” shows hints of breaking out of those confining boxes, even though it falls into the same clichés seen in so many other movies about young African Americans in a big city. Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, “Premature” (his second feature film) is about two New York City residents in their late teens who have reached that post-high-school point in their lives when they’re deciding their goals and career aspirations. They unexpectedly fall in love, and their future plans might be affected by this romance.

Ayanna (played by Zora Howard, who wrote the “Premature” screenplay with Green) is a pretty, thoughtful and somewhat shy woman who is an aspiring poet. She’s headed to Bucknell University (a private liberal arts college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) in the fall. But, for now, she’s enjoying her last summer before becoming a college student. Her circle of female friends seem to have no plans for college and talk in Ebonics, which is why Ayanna is different from them. One of her friends is an obnoxious, foul-mouthed single mother named Tenita (played by Alexis Marie Wint), who’s always yelling at her daughter. The Tenita character is such a cringeworthy “ghetto” stereotype.

Isaiah (played by Joshua Boone) is an aspiring musician/producer, who’s getting some knowledge and experience by hanging out at a small recording studio frequented by local artists who are also seeking to make it big someday. Isaiah is confident, friendly and a lot more respectful than some of his trash-talking friends who see women as nothing more than sexual conquests.

Ayanna and Isaiah first see each other on a basketball court. They lock eyes, as the central couple always does in a romantic drama, and they strike up a conversation. Ayanna plays hard to get, but eventually she and Isaiah start dating each other. She tells him from the beginning that she’s going to Bucknell in the fall, but they decide they’ll figure out their relationship as they go along.

Ayanna lives in a cramped Harlem apartment with her single mother Sarita (played by Michelle Wilson), who has a somewhat tense relationship with Ayanna. It’s clear that Ayanna doesn’t care for her mother’s taste in boyfriends, and the current boyfriend is no exception. The boyfriend isn’t abusive, but Ayanna seems to resent that he takes up space when he’s there visiting. At any rate, Ayanna can’t wait to move out and have her own place.

Shortly after Ayanna and Isaiah become lovers, their relationship hits a jealousy bump in the road. One evening, he and Ayanna are spending some time playing cards with friends when a young white woman who’s close to their age shows up unannounced and insists on speaking to Isaiah in private. By the way she’s acting, it’s very easy to see that she and Isaiah have been “more than friends.”

When Isaiah comes back in the room, the normally quiet Ayanna explodes with hostility and asks Isaiah who the other woman was and what his relationship is to her. Isaiah is taken aback at Ayanna’s jealousy and admits that it was a woman he’d been sleeping with, but their relationship ended before he met Ayanna. He just didn’t tell the other woman that he was dating someone new, and she found out through other people, which is why she was upset with him. Ayanna accepts Isaiah’s explanation, but she starts to wonder if he’s the type of person who plays games with the women he dates. She pulls back a little from him and decides that since she’s going away to college soon, it’s not worth investing her heart with him.

On another night, at a house party that Ayanna goes to without Isaiah, a young man ask her to dance. Feeling like she’s technically single, Ayanna starts grinding on the guy while they’re dancing. Unbeknownst to her, Isaiah has shown up at the party too. She doesn’t see him, but he sees her grinding on another man. Looking visibly hurt, Isaiah leaves the party. The next time he sees Ayanna, it’s his turn to be irritated with her because he’s jealous. They argue some more and then make up. And as they spend more time together, they inevitably fall in love.

It’s interesting how much the story coincidentally mirrors writer/director Horace B. Jenkins’ early 1980s movie “Cane River,” which was also about two African American young people who fall in love over the summer before the woman in the relationship plans to move away to go to college. In this story, they also have to decide whether to end the relationship or continue it long-distance. (“Cane River,” which was set in Louisiana, was originally going to be released in 1982, but then Jenkins died that year, and the movie was finally released in 2020.)

The biggest difference though is that in “Premature,” something happens that’s a big cliché in love stories about African American teenagers. (Hint: Birth control is not seen or discussed in this movie.) And so, “Premature” is yet another movie that has this cliché, which obviously has a massive effect on the couple’s relationship.

The cast’s realistic acting in “Premature” is what elevates a lot of this not-very-original story, whose ending is very easy to predict because it’s the type of story that’s been told many times on screen already. As a director, Green shows a lot of talent in casting and editing choices. It’s the “Premature” screenplay that’s problematic. (But to its credit, the last half of the “Premature” screenplay is much better than the first half.)

Anyone who thinks this is an original way to portray black teenagers is someone who hasn’t seen a lot of African American films. And let’s face it: There are some people who are more comfortable with certain negative stereotypes of African Americans, even if it’s not a realistic depiction of African Americans overall.

One of the best scenes in the movie has nothing to do with the up-and-down romance of Ayanna and Isaiah. The scene takes place in a recording studio, where Isaiah and other young artists get into a spirited discussion about how much responsibility artists, especially black artists, should have in putting social messages in their art. It’s a great scene because it shows the characters without the caricature-like Ebonics that are in the movie’s other scenes and instead shows the characters talking as well-rounded, intelligent people with diverse points of view, without losing their ethnic pride.

“Premature” doesn’t show Ayanna at college, but that’s the kind of movie that would’ve been more interesting than what “Premature” is. Justin Simien’s 2014 comedy “Dear White People” and Spike Lee’s 1988 musical “School Daze” are two of the rare theatrical-release movies with predominantly African American casts that take place at a university. (It says a lot that these movies were released 26 years apart.) There are millions of African Americans who are college graduates, but a black college student is almost never the lead character in a movie. This is an example of the type of African American who is underrepresented in movies about African Americans.

There are many people in this world who have little to no contact with African Americans, so they get their impressions from what they see on screen. If you were to go by how young black people are depicted in movies, you’d think that young black men mainly aspire to be athletes, entertainers or criminals. There are plenty of hard-working, law-abiding young black people who have different aspirations for professions where they won’t be considered “too old” by the time they’re 35. Let’s see more of those young people depicted in movies. Unfortunately, “Premature” stays in that predictable zone and doesn’t take the types of diverse, creative risks that are very much needed in telling African American stories in cinema.

IFC Films released “Premature” in New York City and Los Angeles on February 21, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release expands to more cities in subsequent weeks.