Wildlike filmmakers speak to silence.
Movies often promise what we can’t count on in life— heroes, miracles, a new start, a clean slate, a chance to settle the score. Working against this impulse, Wildlike basks in small human gestures that alight a path through the landscape of loss and betrayal, trust and hope. Using Alaska as a visual trope for immeasurable possibility and indelible loss, the film tells the story of a runaway girl who latches onto a widower when making her escape.
Filmmaker Frank Hall Green wanted to stay true to life. “I wanted to present the sexual abuse in a way it hasn’t been presented before in film,” he said. “I wanted it so that Mackenzie would not tell, no matter what.” In the creation of Wildlike, Green drew from his experience of a family member who worked with perpetrators, and studied and conducted countless interviews with survivors. “I heard many extreme stories of people unable to fully recover,” said Green, who also relied on his cast to research and help define their characters.
By relating the abuse directly, honestly, the filmmakers wanted to tell a story of hope. “Abuse is the catalyst, but the film is about healing,” said Julie Christeas, a producer for the film.
As the film makes the festival circuit this year, its makers encounter and try to correct the many misconceptions about sexual abuse and its lifelong impact on survivors. In the film, for example, Mackenzie behaves sexually toward several men while trying to navigate her way home. In one scene, a young man responds to Mackenzie’s advances, despite sensing something wrong.
“A lot of men don’t understand why she (Mackenzie) would come on to Tommy, why she would come on to Bart,” said Green. “Men see it very differently than women, I’ve learned. They don’t understand the extent of the trauma.”
Green populated the film with more men than women, however. During the Q&A after the Anchorage premiere last week, a woman asked Green why he chose a man rather than a woman as the girl’s ally or protector. He included more female characters in earlier incarnations, he said, but the writing “comes out instinctually and, in that choice, I wanted a male because that was the relationship she needed to have. She needed to have an appropriate relationship with a father figure.“
Plus, said Christeas, “When you’re running from something you often come against that same challenge over and over again.”
After Mackenzie escapes her perpetrator, she scrounges for resources, manipulates other travelers, makes wrong turns using sketchy means, and vacillates between needing to trust someone and distrusting everyone, particularly men, while trying to connect to those who might help her survive.
This pattern of running toward and then away is common among those who have survived sexual abuse, and makes up a common Alaska motif. Green noted in his director’s notes that he “first subconsciously wrote a story of adventure, exploring themes of freedom, escape and innocence. Then, consciously, I asked myself why do I and others seek out adventure? What do people run away from? Or run away to?”
His Wildlike heroine cannot undo what was done, nor easily unravel how the trauma will influence her actions and choices in the days and years to come, but as she makes her journey she can see beyond the narrow field of fear to tomorrow.
The film may have a message, said producer Schuyler Weiss, but “You’re not hearing something didactic.The film is exhilarating, has a strong center, it makes a contribution.”
By embracing a topic made invisible, yet indelible by its effects, Wildlike stirs an emotional wanderlust without sugar coating the hardships and miles along the way.
Green found it daunting to write from the prospective of a 14-year-old girl, and harder still to write the uncle’s part. “I wasn’t up to it at first as a first-time feature writer,” he said.
He knows that some scenes make people uncomfortable and may test people’s patience, but his artistic decision to make an honest film meant carrying that truth forward in structure and story. Unforgiveable acts leave lifetime wounds, but trust and love help heal them.
“Life is a lot of darkness and lightness,” he said. “It’s a lot of back and forth.