Full disclosure: I’m in the credits of “Wildlike.” I interviewed the producer when they were filming in Juneau in 2013 and wrote a preview of the film. (I might have helped find them a raincoat too, I can’t remember.) I was hopeful of their portrayal of Alaska. They were saying the right things. Alaska would be realistic. Alaska was a character as much as the people in the story.
I was a bit nervous to watch the final film. I wanted to like it. Would the producer keep his promise? Would Alaska be an Alaska Alaskans recognize? An Alaska where our awesome, empty, beautiful, and dangerous wilderness isn’t a challenge to overcome, but an Eden to heal.
For let’s face it, the people in “Wildlike” need healing.
Take Mackenzie as played by Ella Purnell. Mackenzie is in a bad situation. Not to give too much away, but she finds herself shipped to Juneau from Seattle to stay with an uncle. Her dad isn’t around and her mom is incapable of caring for her. A girl in her mid-teens suddenly finds herself rudderless, adrift, and in Alaska.
Purnell’s performs Mackenzie with grace and sensitivity. The screenwriter and director, Frank Hall Green, did well. Too many times, when men write women and girls, particularly as protagonists, they fall back on “feisty” or “Lolita” stereotypes. Thank God Mackenzie is neither. Nor is she spunky or sprightly, lucky or plucky. Mackenzie is frustratingly flawed like all of us. You are asked to care for her because she is a human being surviving tough circumstances. And that ought to be enough.
Also needing some healing is Bart, played by Bruce Greenwood. Greenwood is this movie’s recognizable star. He’s a name you won’t necessarily know, but a face you’ve seen before. I first noted Greenwood in Kevin Costner’s “13 Days,” a mediocre film about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Greenwood’s portrayal of JFK, though, accent and all, made me wonder, “Who is that? He’s good.”
The point is Greenwood is the real deal. Greenwood grounds and elevates this film with his acting. I’m not sure the second half of the film, the part that really homes in on how Alaska helps these characters deal with their issues and each other, would have worked without Greenwood’s acting.
So how was the portrayal of Alaska? Not even John Sayles’ “Limbo” was this good. Yes, there are inconsistencies in the narrative’s geography — some compression of time and distance during the ferry and train rides…and who cares? Only an Alaskan would notice.
I know it’s fun, even a pastime, for Alaskans to point out all the wrong place names, settings, and circumstances in Alaska-set movies. But unless it’s a movie asking to be mocked (I’m looking at you “On Deadly Ground”), I generally take a more forgiving view. It’s okay if they don’t get all the details. Alaska is such an alien place to our friends Outside that it’s tough to get right. (And yeah, I loved Northern Exposure, even with the snakes.)
Yet, the reality is I’ve never seen a movie portray Alaska any more realistically than “Wildlike.” (Okay, there’s “Spirit of the Wind,” but nobody has seen the George Attla biopic in three decades.)
“Wildlike” showcases a smart filmmaker using considerable technical prowess to create a setting as a character. In framing and sound, Alaska shapes and moves the story. Such great little details, like how the director used bus and ferry announcements to orient us in place and time. It’s certainly a far cry better than Steven Segal hopping on a sno-go in Prudhoe and ending up in Valdez the next morning.
The Denali Highway, the marine highway, small planes, big boats, and a fantastic glacier reveal — Alaska is all there in its glory. The filmmakers also didn’t shy away from Alaska’s crappy weather. They used rain as a plot device, showing smart flexibility in their filmmaking. They didn’t waste the sunny days either. Some shots, particularly off the ferry, could be framed and hung.
Denali National Park also played a prominent role, and why not? Denali would be a great place to shoot a movie. Yet, as it’s Denali, and there’s backpacking, so there are bears. I was dreading the bear encounter. The bear encounter is a cliché of Alaska movies – always badly done. I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t happen. It did; but how they resolve the bear encounter was a refreshing change of pace.
The film’s use of sound is masterful. The music is smart, moody, and well reflects the action on scene. Some stretches are basically a music video of Alaska’s scenery, and that’s a compliment.
One unexpected use of sound was lack of sound; the absence of dialogue. Much of the “dialogue” between Mackenzie and Bart are looks and body language. I love a movie that lets the visuals tell the story. The filmmakers are brave enough, and the actors good enough, to let an interaction play out rather than over-explain with obvious dialogue. In place of talking, the natural sounds of Alaska — rain, wind, and running water — permeate. These natural sounds accentuate how a lack of man-made sounds doesn’t necessarily equate silence. So nice.
Like the movie, so nice. You’ll have fun picking out your friends from the background. You’ll appreciate their use of Alaska. And, I think, you’ll come to care about Mackenzie and Bart and wish them well upon their return home.
“Wildlike” plays at the Gold Town Nickelodeon on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. with a live video Skype with director Frank Hall Green in-between the shows around 6:15 p.m. to 6:40 p.m. There will also be 7 p.m. shows Monday, Oct. 5, and Wednesday, Oct. 7, with new shows potentially added depending on people’s interest.
• Clint J. Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.