A fifty-something widower reluctantly travels the Alaskan countryside with a sullen 14-year-old girl in Wildlike, a drama that sets a small story against a big background. Writer-director Frank Hall Green has crafted an engaging feature that touches the heart without getting sappy.
Viewers will need to relax and adjust to the film's glacial pacing, however. The word "glacial" often serves as movie review shorthand for "self-indulgent and dull," but that's not true in this instance. Green's tale centers on someone that does not verbalize their emotions. Dealing with a character like that requires a slow, steady hand and Green takes the time to show the process. The actors in the two key parts effectively serve as three dimensional characters, and the setting gives you lots of attractive scenery to look at during the often painful internal journey that occurs during their travels.
The 14-year-old girl in question is Mackenzie (Ella Purnell, who played the teen version of Angelina Jolie's character in Maleficent). Her face displays no emotion. Understand, while the facial features remain blank, the young woman radiates aggression through her determination to show no emotion. Ask her a question and you'll get a short, flat response.
Her passive-aggressive presentation style is emphasized by the dark makeup she wears around her eyes, which makes her face resemble that of a silent movie actress. Of course, silent movie actors used their faces to project the emotions they were unable to voice. So what's the deal with the kid?
We learn early on that Mackenzie's father died and her in-recovery mother has temporarily given custody to her late husband's brother. So Mackenzie is sent from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska to live with her uncle (Brian Geraghty, who looks a lot like Chris Pratt). Alas, he turns out to be a perv, and Mackenzie runs away following his sexual advances.
Meanwhile, Renee Bartlett (Bruce Greenwood, who you'll recognize from a ridiculous number of roles, including Capt. Pike in Star Trek Into Darkness) is getting ready for a hiking trip in Denali National Park, which he used to visit with his wife. Renee walks into his motel room in Juneau and encounters Mackenzie, who took refuge in the room while fleeing from her uncle.
She runs off, but ends up circling back. Renee tries to shoo her away, but she keeps returning, apparently believing that she can eventually snag a ride back to Seattle with him. Renee wants no part of this, but eventually — and grudgingly — allows her to accompany him through the wilderness.
To add tension to the proceedings, Green periodically shows the uncle as he continues searching for Mackenzie. Those moments don't damage the film, but they're more distracting than dramatic.
Better that we stick with Renee and Mackenzie as they walk from one gorgeous vista to another, tentatively exchanging words. Bruce Greenwood is an expert at playing fully-realized individuals that opt not to make grand gestures. Certainly, Renee displays a complete range of emotions, including impressive outbursts of anger, but he never overdoes it. There is a satisfaction watching Greenwood's precise acting.
Watch Ella Purnell as Mackenzie — she adroitly portrays the emotional rumblings beneath the girl's mascaraed stone face without ever giving up too much. Mackenzie may drive you crazy, but you recognize the humanity of the character.
I started off this essay by stressing the importance of meeting the filmmaker half-way and adjusting to his slow pacing. Green realizes that drawing out a child like Mackenzie does not happen quickly and that he must give the cautious exchanges between Renee and the girl plenty of breathing room. Filling the movie with widescreen shots of the Alaskan scenery is a thoughtful method of giving the viewer something extra to look at while the characters find their way. Take advantage of it and enjoy this small, rewarding movie.