Wildlike is a journey. The film portrays an intersecting period of discovery and transformation for two very different people, Mackenzie, a fourteen-year-old girl, and Rene Bartlett, a middle-aged widower. Wildlike as director Frank Hall Green states, “is about the relationship between the physical journeys we take and the journeys of discovery we all must make within ourselves.” Both Rene and Mackenzie are trying to find themselves under very different circumstances. They bond in the Alaskan wilderness. The wilderness presents physical challenges that reflect the characters’ internal struggles but also fosters healing through the tranquil beauty of nature. Wildlike, focuses on the visual to convey its message. The film effectively uses body language to convey the trauma and struggles the characters experience and spectacular wilderness shots to portray the restorative and healing power of nature.
The focus on body language rather than dialogue results in the slow piecemeal provision of information regarding the characters, which itself constitutes a journey consistent with the slow process of self-discovery. There are no flashbacks or long-winded dialogues revealing information. As the film progresses the audience finds out more through the slow, onion-like peeling away of layers of the characters, a technique also used beautifully in the film Mississippi Grind directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.
Frank Hall Green also effectively uses visual information rather than dialogue to create tension. Mackenzie has been sent to stay with an uncle in Alaska. The immediate vibe from the uncle is that he is creepy, and the viewer is not quite sure what to expect. The mood becomes darker and more uncomfortable when Mackenzie, played by Ella Purnell, spends her first night in her uncle’s home in Alaska. Green provides a visual of Mackenzie in her room pulling the covers over her face as she hears footsteps approaching slowly and getting louder until they come to a halt right outside the door. As suspected, the uncle sneaks into Mackenzie’s room one night. The camera focuses on the uncle but then pans to the expression on Mackenzie’s face as her uncle lies down next to her and begins to caress her body before the scene cuts away to black. Green then uses a quick cut to a montage of images from around the house ending with a close up of Mackenzie’s door standing slightly ajar. This sequence exemplifies what the film does best, which is to give the viewers just enough nonverbal information to understand what has happened. This effectively conveys the darkness of the situation without becoming heavy-handed.
Tension continues and peaks when Mackenzie, her uncle, and her uncle’s friend head into the wilderness to explore Alaska. A shot of Mackenzie in the backseat of the car with the uncle’s eyes staring at her through the rearview mirror is reminiscent of the famous shot in the movie “Taxi Driver” generating a sense of foreboding. Fearing the worst, Mackenzie uses a bathroom break in the wilderness as a chance to escape. Here Green effectively combines music with the visual to create tension and reflect Mackenzie’s desperation. As Mackenzie walks away soft drumbeats syncopated to sound like heartbeats begin. As she gets further away and continues to look over her shoulder the drum beats become increasingly louder and faster and then transition to fast-paced, dramatic, string music as Mackenzie runs away as fast as she can.
It is at this point that Mackenzie’s life intersects with Rene Bartlett (referred to as Bart in the film), played by Bruce Greenwood, through chance encounters, the first as an intruder in his motel room which she mistakenly believed was unoccupied. She flees but their paths cross again the next day in a diner. During this encounter Bart begins to understand by observing Mackenzie’s actions and expressions that she is in some kind of trouble. Her eyes reflect her fear and helplessness. Bart, however, rejects her awkward attempts for help because of her inability to express what has happened to her.
Mackenzie realizing that Bart might be able to help her get to Seattle and her mother, follows Bart on a bus ride to his isolated hiking/camping location. The bus leaves and she is left with Bart as an unwanted companion in the Alaska wilderness. While Mackenzie’s expression and body language display her fear, confusion, and hurt, Bart’s constant rubbing of his hands over his forehead and deep breaths while putting his hand over his mouth convey his confusion and frustration. He is confused with respect to her motive in following him. Bart has returned to the place where he and his wife honeymooned in order to deal with her death and is frustrated that he has not been left alone to deal with his own problems. When Bart tries to take Mackenzie by the arm to lead her back to the road, she screams “Get the …. off me!” repeatedly with her anger evident on her face. Bart has a puzzled yet concerned look showing that he understands she is dealing with some serious issues but has no idea what they could be, so he gives her space. It takes some time for the two to develop trust but the struggles in the Alaska wilderness bring them closer together.
The physical challenges of camping and hiking also reflect and complement the characters’ internal struggles. As Mackenzie struggles to overcome abuse and Bart to overcome loss, they must find their way in the wilderness, making fires to cook food, erecting a tent to take refuge from a downpour, and remaining calm when confronted with a bear. Although the wilderness presents challenges, the isolation provides a needed escape while the beauty of the landscape provides a sense of tranquility and hope. In this latter respect the wilderness provides a transformation from the previous tension-filled scenes and the possibility of a transformation for the characters themselves. Frank Hall Green does not miss the opportunity to include surreal shots of the beautiful landscape coupled with the soothing music of strings to convey the restorative powers of nature and create a mood perfect for self-reflection and healing.
The strength of this movie lies in the decision to focus on the visual and nonverbal communication rather than dialogue. The unspoken interactions emphasize the internal nature of the characters’ struggles. The use of nonverbal communication is also consistent with Mackenzie’s age. As an adolescent Mackenzie is still struggling to express verbally what she feels. The decision to limit dialogue works because both actors - Ella Purnell as Mackenzie and Bruce Greenwood as Bart - do an outstanding job of communicating by using body language, facial expressions and visible emotions. The slow conveyance of information over the course of the film as a result of the decision to focus on nonverbal communication also reflects the slow process of self-discovery and healing. The viewer participates in the journey learning new information at the same time as the characters learn about each other.
With his well-timed shots, use of cuts in certain scenes, emphasis on body language and facial expressions instead of dialogue, creation of tension, and occasional use of music to dramatize scenes, Green’s vision of portraying two people transcending past dark events through a physical journey and an inward journey of discovery really comes to life. The film focuses on the journey rather than the destination and is powerful because it allows the journey to take precedence and develop as the characters experience it.