One of this year’s Hugo nominees for Best Novelette, “Helicopter Story,” was originally published under a different title, taken from a transphobic meme: “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter.” Written by a trans woman, the story (according to its many fans) creatively interrogates that meme’s intolerance, undermining the reductio ad absurdum “argument” by treating it as something other than an obnoxious Catskills one-liner. Despite these good intentions, however, an ugly brouhaha ensued; publisher Neil Clarke wound up removing the story from his website in response to protests, an act that then sparked additional protests. It’s been sorted out now, but the retitling seems significant. For a lot of people, that comparison itself—“If you can identify as another gender, or no gender at all, you can identify as literally anything”—is so odious that it’s difficult to look past.
Wolf (no connection to 1994’s Jack Nicholson vehicle) treads through a similar minefield. The key difference is that it concerns a real-world phenomenon: people who perceive themselves as animals rather than human. Right away, this gets tricky. Search Wikipedia for “species dysphoria”—a term that comes up repeatedly in Wolf, along with “species identity disorder”—and it redirects you to an entry for “otherkin,” which also addresses self-designated elves, vampires, dragons, even fictional characters. Does it make sense to employ any of those as a trans allegory?
It’s exceedingly difficult not to experience Wolf as one, anyway. The film takes place entirely at what amounts to a conversion-therapy facility, run with an iron fist by a sadistic man known as the Zookeeper (Paddy Considine). His goal is to browbeat patients into accepting what he insists is their true nature, often by mocking and physically humiliating them. Jacob (George MacKay), who identifies as a wolf, initially seems ready, if not at all eager, to be “cured,” stifling his urge to crawl on all fours and howl at the moon. The more he witnesses of the Zookeeper’s cruelty, however, the more aggressively lupine he becomes, even as a young female wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp) begs him to stick with the program and remain there with her indefinitely.
There’s absolutely no question that writer-director Nathalie Biancheri (Nocturnal) empathizes with the otherkin, and that Wolf celebrates their desire to be fully themselves, however irrational that may appear to others. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to the movie, which by its very nature can’t really have “characters” in the conventional sense. We learn virtually nothing about Jacob apart from his desire to be a wolf; MacKay gives an admirably committed performance, crawling and howling with gusto, but he just doesn’t have much to work with, emotionally. An interspecies romance between wolf and wildcat remains equally superficial (and winds up weirdly complicated by a late-breaking, somewhat nonsensical revelation about Depp’s long-term resident). Both lead actors are upstaged by Darragh Shannon as squirrel-identifying Jeremy, whose personality is much more eager beaver; the lad’s gung-ho but ultimately futile efforts to assimilate with humanity are at once hilarious and touching.
That diversion aside, Wolf mostly prompts speculation regarding what the film means to say about being trans, a connection that Biancheri makes quite explicit at times. “You’re a girl!” the Zookeeper bellows directly into someone’s face, as tears flow from beneath the homemade parrot mask she constantly wears. “You’re a girl! Say it!” Will viewers who’ve heard such abusive commands in their own lives feel seen by this movie? Or will they bridle (so to speak) at being equated with otherkin, see it as uncomfortably adjacent to the attack helicopter absurdity? Is it insensitive to suggest that the equation is insensitive? Maybe. What’s certain is that a stronger, more searching exploration of this scenario—one not so starkly conceived in terms of victims and villains—would have gone a long way toward alleviating potential misgivings. Wolf is so thin that one can’t help but look right through it.