I'm going to make this clear: If you still believe in the power of cinema, watch “Wolf.” It is a sledgehammer to the gut with a script that unfolds like a slow burning wick leading to a stack of dynamite. While some films waver from the controversy they depict, “Wolf” embraces its subject, assured of its direction while peeling away the layers of complexity that envelops its characters. It is as simple a story as can be: a family struggles for unity during a time of spiritual and emotional crisis. The complexity stems from the characters' battles with faith gone asunder and deciphering what is attraction when by law it is abuse.
Sexual abuse. By a bishop.
Carl (Jordan Cooper, in his first film role) is the teenage victim of a long and confounding relationship with Bishop Anderson (Eugene Lee, the Wolf of the title). Wracked with confusion due to his attraction-- both sexual and paternal --to his assailant, Carl limps from day to day trying to make sense of it all. He finds no solace, no answers, only rejection when Bishop Anderson decides to end the affair. Emotionally empty and caught in a spiral towards mental breakdown, Carl attempts suicide.
It is during his stay in the hospital when his mother Nona (Mikala Gibson, as strong a female character as I've seen) and estranged father Jaymund (Rev. Shelton Jolivette) find out why Carl made the attempt on his life. Both parents have left Carl to mature on his own during their unselfish quest to make a better living for the family; Nona is face deep in her psychology textbook, finishing community college in attempt to become a psychiatrist. Jaymund spends 90 percent of the year on the road as a trucker, leaving Bishop Anderson to fill the void. When the depth of Carl's affair with the bishop is exposed, Nona and Jaymund's world is shattered but in separate ways: Nona is left questioning her faith in God and the Church while Jaymund must reassemble his ideas of masculinity.
Nona is calmed and guided by her grandmother Brenda (Irma P. Hall--two words: scene chewing), a lifelong believer whose stance is that the abuse by Bishop Anderson should be dealt with in the church, not "out there in the street." For Brenda, God is the ultimate judge and jury for Bishop Anderson, not the earthly legal system. Faith and prayer is the best prescribed medicine to unite the family according to Brenda--not therapy or justice.
Jaymund, like Carl, has no figure to turn to. And he is more estranged from God than he is from Carl. Instead, Jaymund finds alleviation at the bottom of numerous 16 ounce tall boys of Old Milwaukee. Coupled with a hair trigger temper, Jaymund can only lash out; at God for allowing Bishop Anderson to carry out these acts against his son, at Bishop Anderson for doing so, at Carl for having homosexual feelings and withholding his relationship with the bishop from everyone and finally at himself for not being a dutiful father instead of a mere breadwinner. Jaymund is a clenched fist waiting to swing, demanding justice from God and Man, deciding to take matters into his own hands.
The beauty of “Wolf” is that it is not one sided. It is a very dialectic film. It restrains from finger pointing and flag waving and instead portrays humans as humans are: flawed, complicated beings who do not always understand their urges. Bishop Anderson is one of those beings. He is a man tortured by the demons of having abused several young boys before and after Carl. A victim of sexual abuse himself, the bishop yearns for atonement from God for harboring these feelings towards the young boys. He refuses to seek counseling; believing God will either make him anew or serve him his rightful punishment. Lee's performance is absolutely essential to the film. It is void of satire and parody, a portrayal of a man screaming to understand his urges but choosing to emulate the bishop persona his "flock" know him as. He knows he is a fraud yet continues fighting the acceptance of his own illusion.
Aesthetically the film is almost plain. There is nothing fancy here, folks. The camera all but disappears, the edits go mainly unnoticed save for a few jump cuts, the mise-en-scene is bone dry yet beautiful. It's as though director Ya'ke Smith instructed his crew to be as reserved as possible. And for that he should be given a f--king medal. The lack of "oohs" and "aahs" shows an extreme amount of patience --something most directors seem to lack in this era of shaky camera and fast cutting--and utmost attention to the realism of the performances.
Only a director who truly loves and cares for his characters would subject them to the level of vulnerability that Ya'ke subjects his ensemble to. And that is where the visceral experience of “Wolf” lies. Ya'ke isn't afraid to hold a mirror to America's less preferable issues. Here it is sexual abuse by the bishop; previously it was the aftermath of Katrina and an Iraq veteran dealing with PTSD. What he succeeds best at is leaving the audience to ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions. He gives you 2 + 2. You have to find what comes after the equal sign.
“Wolf” is a fearless film, one that needs to be experienced by anyone who can find it. It debuted recently at this year’s SXSW to enthusiastic reviews but hit deeper than reviews can measure, leaving little doubt it will do the same regardless of where it shows. An exhausting journey that needs to be taken. A film that needs to be seen.