Alaska is a place of singular beauty that envelopes you in endless fresh air, undisturbed locales, and the glorious sight of mountains for days in every direction. Its vastness can create an isolation of sorts if you let it, a feeling that walks a fine line between loneliness and solitude with the balance decided only by the weight of your heart. Few films have captured that feeling of Alaska’s appealing desolation before – Into the Wild, maybe parts of The Grey – but now one more title can be added to the mix.
Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) has barely gotten to enjoy the beginning of her teenage years when life deals her a devastating one-two punch. Her father has died, and her mother’s addictions have forced her into rehab, so with no other resources in Seattle Mackenzie is sent to stay with an uncle (Brian Geraghty) in Alaska for the summer. He shows her kindness, showers her with gifts, and sneaks into her bed at night to do unspeakable things. It may not be the first time, and she knows it won’t be the last, so when the opportunity arises during an outing she runs away.
Her goal is to get back to Seattle, but her efforts including sleeping in unlocked cars and trying to sweet talk her way into nice hotel don’t quite work. Her luck changes when she crosses paths with a hiker in Denali National Park named Rene (Bruce Greenwood). He wants nothing to do with her at first, but when the two of them end up on the same deserted trail in the park he quietly allows her to join his party of one. What begins as necessity slowly grows into a relationship offering the exact thing each of them is missing.
Wildlike, from writer/director Frank Hall Green, is a beautiful little gem of a film about knowing the difference between the things we get in life and the things we deserve. Mackenzie has watched as those closest to her have let her down through their absence and addictions, while Rene has settled into an angry solitude fueled by his own recent loss. It’s not a new story being told here – a girl in need of a father figure, a man in need of a reason to care – but it’s told with such beauty and humanity that its effect remains even weeks after viewing.
The abuse subplot is never shown in an exploitative light, and instead we intuit what’s happening through the movement of sheets and the sounds of the bed springs. Mackenzie’s situation is clear, and while the words aren’t spoken there’s reason to believe Uncle has crossed this line in the past. These incidents are used as motivators for her journey, and the repercussions are visible in her actions as someone who seemingly learned quickly that her developing body could be used as currency with males. It’s a painful confusion that leaves her at the whim of circumstance and strangers.
Rene’s arrival in her life is bumpy at first, but it becomes an essential meeting for them both. The bond they clumsily form could have easily gone the way of unwieldy melodrama, but Green’s script and his two leads keep things grounded while still being emotionally satisfying. There’s no rush to hit typical narrative beats here – their time in the Alaskan wilderness moves at a hiker’s pace allowing viewers the opportunity to feel the steps and take in the surrounding terrain. Moments of suspense are effective and powerful but never threaten to shift the film into something it’s not.
Geraghty’s unnamed Uncle – presumably in defiance to all the unnamed uncles, cousins, and step-fathers of the world committing similar violations of those in their charge – is a difficult role in both its content and duration, but he plays the falseness with recognizable conviction. A handful of other faces come and go as strangers who move in and out of Mackenzie’s journey, and it’s there where she often finds acts of kindness absent in her own relations.
For all of the visual beauty and gentle storytelling here though, the beating heart of the film belongs to Purnell and Greenwood. She’s tasked with communicating more through her silence than she is through her words, and she succeeds at every turn. Big eyes and a tiny frame work at expressing a delicate fragility, but it’s her performance that reveals her inner pain and confusion. Greenwood meanwhile shows yet again his immense talent, warmth, and ability to deliver a character who simply feels lived in and real.
Wildlike finds beauty, calm, and trust between two strangers and makes it as compelling an experience as any big-budget spectacle could ever hope to create. You’ll be entertained, but more than that, you’ll be moved. It may also get you to spend some time wandering off trail in Alaska, and that’s a feeling you’ll never forget.
The Upside: Strong, emotional lead performances; beautiful landscapes; affecting relationship and story; delicate subject handled with care
The Downside: Could have used more bears