With her debut feature Wolf, writer-director Nathalie Biancheri crafts a powerful parable about trans identity, filtering it through a story about people who identify as a different species. In clumsy hands, the metaphor would fall apart and into the open arms of bigots who snidely say things like “I identify as an attack helicopter.” But Biancheri’s film works because of its empathetic understanding of identity and humanity and how the shortcomings of the latter can limit the former. With a dynamic, physical lead performance from George MacKay, Wolf is a haunting exploration of those seeking to live as themselves and those whose cruelty and fear wish to limit that identity.
Jacob (MacKay) is a young man who has species dysphoria. He believes that he is a wolf, and his troubled parents send him to a facility with other young people who believe they are different kinds of animals. Under the eye of cruel administrators, the patients are drilled to accept their species as human through banal activities like using an iPad or line dancing. When these softer forms of cruelty fail to connect, the patients are put under the supervision of Dr. Mann aka “The Zookeeper” (Paddy Considine), who typically forces the patients to follow through on their dysmorphia like making a patient who believes he’s a squirrel climb a tree until his fingernails break off or threatening to push a young girl out a window because she thinks she’s a parrot. As Jacob strains against the program, he meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a longtime patient at the facility and the two begin a mutual embrace of their true selves.
While species dysphoria is a real thing, it’s clear that Biancheri isn’t pulling a crass, Rick Santorum-esque “man on dog” comparison. Wolf is not arguing that gender dysmorphia is equivalent to species dysmorphia, but rather that the problem lies with those who get to dictate what constitutes “humanity.” Although it would be great if films quit naming characters “Mann” to point out that they represent the worst of mankind (see also Interstellar), the Zookeeper makes an effective look at how it’s not the patients who think they’re beasts that’s the problem, but the humans who think they’re fit to lecture anyone else on what constitutes “humanity.” From there, you have a pretty straight line to the cruelty inflicted by “conversion” camps who think that it’s their business to tell people that they’re a “boy” or “girl.”
Using the species dysmorphia as a hook makes for a more effective subtext than simply making a film about a regular conversion camp because it allows Biancheri to explore concepts of not only identity, but also humanity. The film revolves a central irony that while the patients believe themselves to be animals, it’s really the “humans” who are behave in an inhumane manner. Admittedly, it’s a simple message and we don’t really need a film to tell us about man’s inhumanity to man, but it’s more potent when you see it as a gender dysmorphia story. The patients don’t look to hurt anyone, and it’s not like it would be the worst thing in the world if Jacob just got to believe he was a wolf. Why would it matter if people wanted to transition to a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth? Of course, it’s not a threat to “nature”; it is only a threat to people who seek to exercise their power and control.
MacKay continues to show he’s an incredibly exciting young actor as he throws himself completely into the role. He has the tricky balancing act of being both wolf and man. He needs to constantly show empathy for his fellow patients and love for Wildcat, but he must also be the wolf. His psychology is human but he feels like his body doesn’t match his identity, and so MacKay embraces the physicality of “being” a wolf. Biancheri treats these scenes with complete sincerity and earnestness, which is the only way the film can work. There’s no poking fun at these characters, and that’s for the better because empathy is where this film lives and breathes. If you’re going into Wolf to snicker at people acting like animals, you’re really saying more about you than the film.
Wolf is a movie about the cages people try to put us into, and the ones we believe we have to live in. That makes it an ultimately liberating experience, and with its deep well of empathy, one that makes a potent fable about human cruelty in the face of different identities. Some may find it a tad simplistic, but the power of Biancheri’s filmmaking and the commitment of her actors renders Wolf into a thoughtful, compassionate work that speaks to what makes us human, even if we believe we’re an animal.
Wolf opens in theaters in limited release today.