The True Adventures of Wolfboy. Sounds like it might be a superhero movie – Wolfboy as a junior Wolverine. Or a supervillain movie – a Mini-Me Werewolf. In fact it’s neither. This is the everyday story of a teenage boy covered in hair, lots of it. And before we go any further, yes, he’s tried depilatory products, but the hair just comes back twice as thick.
“I’m normal, I”m a normal kid,” says Paul (Jaeden Martell, who was going by the name Jaeden Lieberher last time I saw him, in 2016’s Midnight Special), a 13-year-old bullied by the horrible other kids, cowed into wearing a balaclava, a freak in his own eyes as much as anyone else’s.
He has parents of the helicopter variety – dad (Chris Messina) hovers about fairly ineffectually, offering team talks and suggesting Paul go to a special school for kids like him. Together they watch a promo video for the institution which places way too much weight on diversity and is fronted by a principal so chummy he’s scary. Mom, meanwhile, has helicoptered herself right out of the situation, having bolted once she caught sight of what she’d given birth to.
Wolfboy Paul’s “true adventures” are kicked off by a particularly nasty bit of bullying at a carnival, which ends up with him running away from home and setting course for Pennsylvania, where his mother is supposedly living.
As he meets one oddball character after another en route, what then plays out is a tidied-up, slimmed-down but still recognisable reworking of the Pinocchio story, except Paul doesn’t want to be a real boy, just a normal one.
The circus master in Pinocchio pops up in the shape of Mr Silk (John Turturro), owner of a travelling carnival who sees in Paul a chance to bring back the olde tyme freak show. Later, Pinocchio’s Fairy with the Turquoise Hair also becomes a significant part of the story, now transformed into a young nightclub singer called Aristiana (Sophia Grace Gianni), a reminder of where she came from in the turquoise bathing cap she wears when she performs.
Both Mr Silk and Aristiana treat Paul as neither freak nor child – alcohol and cigarettes figure in both sets of interactions – leading to the “but of course” conclusion that the hairiness is none other than a stand-in for puberty, which does seem just a touch crass.
Talking of one thing standing in for another, this whole film seems to be set in a slightly parallel version of present-day America. It’s realistic, but not entirely plausible – where are the people huddled over their smartphones? Where are the CCTV cameras when Paul and Aristiana embark on a life of heisting convenience stores with latest new friend Rose (a rather good Eve Hewson)? As they speed away from yet another robbery in Rose’s van, no onlooker even seems interested in taking down the departing vehicle’s number plate.
It took me a while to click with this not-quite-thereness of the portrayal of everyday life. But slowly the whole thing grew on me, this optimistic picaresque, fairy tale in structure and populated with flawed characters.
Chloë Sevigny turns up, playing Paul’s compromised mother, right about the point when things start wrapping up in a way that’s satisfying both on an emotional level and in terms of plot – the hairiness is explained and a new spin is put on the “learning to love yourself” formula.
Wolfboy – not a hero, not a villain, super or otherwise, in a film where everyone, at some level, is exactly like him.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020