At the center of Fritz Bohm's debut feature, Wildling is Bel Powley's consistently engaging and unsettling performance. The film's first half works well but quickly begins to spiral into a mess, keeping Wildling from standing out from other coming-of-age monster movies that are more effective, think Raw, When Animals Dream or Ginger Snaps. What remains though are some promising moments from director Bohm and further proof that Bel Powley is one of the most exciting newcomers.
Powley made a big splash back in 2015 with her performance in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Similar to that film, Powley is on screen through most of Wildling and this is a good thing. The film follows Anna (Powley) who has grown up being locked away by her "Daddy" (Brad Dourif). He feeds her stories about dangerous creatures called "wildlings" that live in the woods. The electrified door that shocks her if she tries to leave is to keep them out, not her in, he reassures her. As dysfunctional as their relationship is, it works for a number of years until Anna hits puberty. Her first period causes "Daddy" to flip out and start injecting her with something that suppresses her puberty. When that fails, he shoots himself in the head and leaves Anna to the outside world. Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) takes her in as they attempt to find her next of kin.
Anna begins to try to connect to the normal world and it is here that Bohm and the film show real promise. She begins to form a sexual relationship with Ray (Collin Kelley-Sordelet), the sheriff's son. She gets invited to a party and so on. The film covers similar territory as other films like it but there is enough in Powley's performance to want to explore her transition into life. When the film veers away from this, things get less effective.
There is a subplot involving a crazy man who wears wolf skins and lives in the woods that comes into the film out of nowhere. This might have worked if the film was prepared to shift from introspective horror to a more campy tone but the film remains self-serious as the plot muddies and this subplot becomes more the focus.
On a technical level, Wildling leaves a lot to be desired. The film is often under-lit and shot without much coherence. Several scenes become murky messes due to poor camerawork and lighting. The film's score is also too bland to stand out or add any punch to the pace of the film.
Despite the film's issues, Powley centers the film and makes it continually watchable. She can't save the film from blending into the pack of teenage werewolf movies. Wildling should have gone for something new or trusted its lead performer to be the center of the story. Instead, we get odd subplots thrown in to appeal to horror audiences. Here's the thing, real horror fans would have gone for the more contemplative approach to puberty and transformation.