Here’s a free idea for the arthouse programmers of the world: schedule a series of films whose directors were making the leap from documentary films to features. Films like Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits and Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals showcase a unique approach to character and narrative. Possessing a singular viewpoint and dynamic lead performances, these films ask us to simply exist in a series of moments with the main characters, exposing ourselves to their truths by seeing the world as they see it. And as of this weekend, you can officially add Andrew Wonder‘s Feral to this list of must-see narrative debuts.
It would be wrong to say that Yazmine (Annapurna Sriram) lives on the streets, considering her actual home is a good hundred feet below them. When we first meet Yazmine, we walk alongside her in the abandoned tunnels and empty homeless camps that litter the underground relics of the MTA; with her as our guide, we eventually find our way into the long-abandoned power station she has converted into her home. But this underground life is only one facet of Yazmine’s existence. In her collection of sweaters and skirts, she can also pass among the fashionable parts of Brooklyn, moving alongside hipsters and bohemians and passing judgment on their hollow lives as she bums cigarettes.
New York has plenty to offer any young person — even those who knowingly straddle the line between desirable and undesirable — but Yazmine is undeterred by what life throws at her, entirely comfortable in her own skin. She quotes Langston Hughes to strangers, offers unsolicited and rather poignant advice to Upper West Side mothers suffering through quarter-life crises, and even goes on an impromptu date with a young musician (a date that ends abruptly when she runs out of his house with a pile of records). Through it all, though, Yazmine nurses the decade-old wound of her missing mother and the life she might’ve had if things had played out differently. Now, with a storm on its way, she must make a choice about who she wants to be and who she thinks she can trust if she is to make it through the winter alive.
In Yazmine, Sriram has created a character that resists simplistic narratives about the homeless. While she does eventually reveal the circumstance that caused her to live on the streets — circumstances that feel painfully authentic in our current political moment — she possesses a hard-earned mistrust of the shelters and government services that might offer her a way out. She knows the disdain others hold towards her; in one scene, Yazmine is violently beaten by a group of drunks as police lights flash in the background. What would be a sign of rescue for some is a sign of indifference for her, and asking her to put faith in the very system that encouraged her to slip through the cracks is a tough pill to swallow. When pushed by a social worker what services she can offer, Yazmine only asks for an MTA card and a tampon. Anything else would be suspect.
This mistrust is not reserved for the malevolent strangers of New York, either. Even the empathetic people she encounters — ones who invite Yazmine into their homes or offer her a helping hand — see her as only a humanitarian cause worth taking on, not the intelligent and expressive woman standing before them. One woman shows her kindness because Jasmine bears a slight resemblance to her daughter; another offers her assistance in exchange for an on-camera testimonial that helps promote her shelter. In both cases, a stranger takes it upon herself to decide what is best for Yazmine, which understandably causes the young woman to dig further into her own independent streak. “I’ve been out here all by myself, doing it alone,” she explains defiantly to one shelter employee. “And every time there has been a helping hand? It’s had a razor blade in it.”
As Yazmine moves across the city, Wonder brings a documentarian’s eye to bear in his character’s journeys across Manhattan. One of the film’s most powerful images is that of Yazmine watching children play on the subway grate from underneath the city; much like this scene, Feral often places Yazmine on the periphery of recognizable New York landmarks. We see her on the outskirts of Central Park or walking silently through St. Mark’s Place, hinting at the crowds of people that surround her — and the number of people like Yazmine they passively ignore in their everyday journeys. Most of all, Wonder’s camera captures Sriram reacting, not acting, to the words and stories of the people around her. For a film grappling with such tough questions, Feral is almost unbearably warm in how it captures its lead. Sriram has created one of the dynamic characters of 2019, and Wonder is there to capture it all in close up.
In stringing together a few moments in time with Yazmine, Feral asks us to take note of the unnoticeable, and the result is a film that honors its character without turning her into an easily digestible message. With Feral, Wonder takes his place alongside directors like Hollmer and Zagar as one of a new generation of filmmakers who use the visual language of documentaries to make us care deeply about their leads. Make sure you take the opportunity to see this film if it plays at a festival near you.