Wildcat review — “The truth shall make you odd”

Directed by Ethan Hawke | Written by Hawke and Shelby Gaines | 103 min | ▲▲▲△△

An earlier, capsule version of this review appeared during FITI coverage of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

The headline is lifted from American southern gothic author Flannery O’Connor, as is this gem:

“The truth doesn’t change according to your ability to stomach it.”

That one turns out to be a key line of this biopic. It suggests something inexorable, which feels especially controversial in a time of political polarity and where, especially in the United States, faith these days seems to have more currency than fact.

Maya Hawke, the director’s daughter who has become a star thanks to Stranger Things and Maestro, is in the lead as O’Connor. She’s something of a revelation. It’s no small thing to carry a feature film, even one as scrappily indie as this one, as she shares scenes with hall-of-famer Laura Linney, who plays her mother, Regina.

The film grapples with O’Connor’s problematic relationship with race in the south. It visualizes how she depicted it in her stories, recreating a number of them within the film and casting Maya and Linney as characters where they’re stand-ins, or at least reflective, of people in O’Connor’s life, a sometimes confusing mix of biography and fiction. The stories wrestle with the nature of god, good and evil, the horror of illness — O’Connor was diagnosed with Lupus in her 20s, forcing her into the care of her mother — and how suffering relates to grace. Liam Neeson appears briefly as a kindly priest, putting a pin in the Catholicism.

What feels especially shocking is the frequently utilized n-word, as the stories did. Coming out of white people’s mouths that’s as provocative as it gets in the modern discourse. Hollywood rarely risks upsetting anyone, or exploring actual political ideas. This one is bracing in what it tries to do.

That said, it’s a big swing that doesn’t always connect. Flipping between O’Connor’s difficult, unhappy life and dramatic fictions makes for a humorous, often uneven narrative, but as a technique aiming to deliver both a writer’s interior and exterior lives onscreen, it’s entirely effective.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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