In his heart, he’s an animal.
No, not a party animal or a nasty guy. He’s a true animal. In Jacob’s case, he’s actually a wolf who wants to run wild through nature, rolling in the undergrowth, howling at the moon. But he’s been told that running naked through the woods and growling at the neighbors isn’t the thing to do.
After his parents drop him off at a special clinic for such problems, Jacob realizes that he’s not as singularly strange as he may have been told. There are other teens and young adults at the clinic with the same struggles.
A guy there named Rufus thinks that he’s really a German Shepherd. Judith thinks she’s a parrot. And Jeremy is convinced he’s a sprightly squirrel trapped in an awkward boy’s body.
Dr. Mann, also known as the Zookeeper, is in charge of the clinic. He created the program. Each of the young people there may indeed feel like they have a beastial nature within, clawing to get out. But the Zookeeper is even more certain that he can help them see the flaws in their furry fantasies. It just takes a practiced eye and some hard trials.
Forcing Jeremy to attempt to scurry up a large tree, for instance, may cause havoc on his fingernails and skin, but it reinforces the truth that he has no squirrel-like skills. And pushing Judith to the edge of a second story window certainly emphasizes that teen girls don’t have flight-worthy feathers.
If anything, though, these lessons and humanity-enforcing drills are having an opposite effect on Jacob. He feels more angry and wolflike with each passing day. And the only thing that seems to have a calming effect on him is spending time with a mysterious girl named Wildcat.
Wildcat has lived at the clinic nearly all her life, and she comes and goes as she pleases. But she makes Jacob feel things that he hasn’t before. You could call them human things. He feels the human feelings of a wolf trapped in a human body. It’s an odd, sniffing, growling, softly touching sensation that changes Jacob’s perspective.
If only this wolf and this wildcat could find their way out of the very human cage they’ve been trapped in. Then everything would change.
Jacob is sure of it … in his heart.
Though Jacob’s natural state tends to be rather angry and savage, he also displays a protective side. He tries to protect the weaker Wildcat. And he pounces on a large teen who is always bullying a smaller boy.
The doctors encourage patients to write about their feelings in journal entries, suggesting that “writing is a powerful tool for change.” (And it seems to actually help some, until the Zookeeper uses their words to torment them.) Later in the film, Wildcat chooses to risk her safety to free a caged Jacob.
A young woman named Annalisa, who believes she’s a panda, scoffs at the Zookeeper labeling their feelings as a “disease to be cured.” “But what is it then?” Jacob asks her. “God,” she replies.
The Zookeeper openly disdains the suggestion that “if, spiritually, you’re an animal, then that’s it! You’re that animal.”
Wildcat dresses regularly in a clingy T-shirt that emphasizes that she’s not wearing anything underneath. Wildcat and Jacob draw closer and things turn sexual. That begins with them sniffing and growling while they circle each other on all fours. Eventually those animal actions translate into more human activities.
Wildcat softly kisses Jacob’s face and hands, and the muzzle he’s wearing. More intimate touching between the two ensues We see her topless the next morning and then sitting naked in a bathtub full of water (with her chest bared).
The Zookeeper reads passages aloud from Jacob’s journal of which includes some graphic anatomical details. Jacob is regularly shirtless. And we see him standing naked in the tall grass (his back to the camera) and then rolling and chewing the grass and leaves (in close up).
From time to time we see nature videos of animalistic activities—such as a large snake slowly consuming a live frog, and a lion munching on a bloody carcass—all designed to illustrate the difference between human and animal choices.
That said, it’s the Zookeeper’s treatments that often come off as the more violent and inhumane. The doctor forces some patients to do things that cause them pain and make them frightened. When outside, he requires patients to wear collars and to be pulled around by a leash. We see one man in a cage dressed in tattered rags and are told about his cannibalistic past. And in the heat of rage, the doctor takes an electric cattle prod to a caged and muzzled Jacob. In spite of the muzzle the young man’s cries echo through the facility.
In some cases, the animalistic patients fight back with snarls and growls. They smash tables and slash at others around them. Jacob leaps, growling, on the Zookeeper at one point, seemingly about to bite his throat before being dragged away.
A local town thug climbs the clinic’s fence and throws a dog carcass through a plate glass window. Jacob and Wildcat bury the animal’s body. Wildcat tells Jacob of one patient running away from the facility and being beaten badly by locals, then dying in the woods.
One brief conflict scene between the Zookeeper and Judith involves four or five quickly spewed f-words. But outside of that moment, a single exclamation of “bulls–t” and a misuse of God’s name are the only other profanities.
Patients are encouraged to use technology to connect with their humanity. In Jacob’s case, that means playing a shooter video game. A young woman suggests that human perceptions are all just constructs designed to be used as labels to easily describe others. One of the female doctors keeps Wildcat in her room, treating her like a daughter and locking her away from others. The German Shepherd boy acts out and urinates in his pants.
“I don’t live in the body I should.”
That line, along with many others like it, can easily draw a certain level of comparison between this story focused on “species dysphoria” and the struggles of gay and transgendered individuals. Those analogical ties are pronounced and easy to spot. But what writer/director Nathalie Biancheri is intending to communicate with them is much more difficult to parse out.
On one hand, for instance, the therapy employed for these young people, who think themselves animals trapped in human bodies, is obviously inhumane and at times pretty brutal. But on the other hand, the film declares that to placate or encourage their mental fantasies would be equally destructive, if not more so. So, there’s arguably very little in the way of a clear message or moral to this wolfy tale, if you’re looking for one.
Wolf is well acted and directed. But ultimately it plays out as a somewhat strange little indie film—and one with some stray sexual sequences, naked howling in the woods and a bark of f-word-laden profanity—that calls upon viewers to make whatever braying or baying human connections they care to create.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.