When the two protagonists of “Wildlike” encounter a bear during their Alaskan expedition, Mackenzie (Ella Purnell, “Maleficient”) suddenly remembers her companion Rene’s (Bruce Greenwood, “Star Trek Into Darkness”) most important rule of the trail: don’t run.
This decree is in direct contrast to Mackenzie’s natural instincts to flee under pressure. After the death of her father, her mother’s addiction issues strips her of parental abilities, sending the 14-year-old to live with her uncle in Alaska. She arrives with a quiet and untrusting disposition and a full face of raccoon-eqsue makeup, a shield from her circumstances. Uncle (Brian Geraghty, “Chicago P.D.”), who is never given a proper name, begins to sexually abuse Mackenzie. So when the opportunity arises, Mackenzie takes her chances and runs.
Even with her limited financial resources and lack of shelter, Mackenzie is determined to return to her mother in Seattle. She sleeps in cars and breaks into strangers’ hotel rooms. During one of these break-ins, she meets her reluctant ally, Rene. At first, he wants nothing to do with the surly teen who insists on following him. But eventually, the two slowly build a growing trust and familial compassion for each other. Mackenzie even drops her shield of dark eyeliner, allowing Rene to be the first person to see her natural face.
The film delicately approaches the Mackenzie as a young girl prematurely forced into her sexuality, with finesse. Mackenzie’s body is suddenly transformed into a commodity, and her agitation is evident in every relationship with men she encounters after Uncle violates her. The scenes where Uncle takes advantage of her are not exploitative or sexualized; the fact that her attacker is given such a vague name lends the film universality in this matter. It highlights the concept that abuse is not limited to those who match traditional schemas of abusers.
“Wildlike” is a quiet film. There is sparse dialogue, the characters mostly using facial expressions and body language to communicate complex emotion. The conversations that do exist are very hushed, but this choice matches Mackenzie and Rene’s reticent personalities. While the pair clearly have a familial bond, their relationship is not overworked for dramatic effect. “Wildlike” allows its characters to develop themselves and their connections in a realistic manner — at their own pace.