Meet Paul, the anti-Lon Chaney.
The 13-year-old may look like a fearsome werewolf, but he has no plans to rip out your throat with his fangs. Not even those of his jerk bullies. He’s just an average guy who suffers from a genetic condition that causes thick hair to grow all over his body, including on his face. Lovable Paul is the star of a warm film nobody saw coming called “The True Adventures of Wolfboy.”
Lest you think a kid covered in fur is an unrealistic stretch for a coming-of-age drama, it actually hits harder than most of late. Bucking the trend of so many movies about teenage struggles, director Martin Krejčí’s “Wolfboy” is neither a glam YA romance, nor is it politicized (opioid addiction, gay conversion camp). Everybody can see themselves in Paul (Jaeden Martell) when he’s heckled at school and gets gawked at by ignorant adults who should know better.
Being ostracized has forced the lonely boy to sulk around his upstate New York town in a wool ski mask, and instead of hanging out with friends he stays upstairs in his room. That changes when Paul gets a letter from his mom, who hightailed it years earlier, saying she can explain why he is the way he is. Paul runs away to find her in Pittsburgh.
To afford bus fare, Paul takes a gig as a freak in a traveling circus run by the smarmy Mr. Silk. John Turturro, who plays the slime ball, looks like an unshaven Dee Snider and becomes the villain. The boy then meets a much friendlier face in Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), a transgender girl who sings in a local bar. She helps Paul get to Pennsylvania, while battling her own demons.
It’s the Martell show though, and the major talent finds a lot of nuance in his angsty rebellion even when wearing a ton of makeup. I have to hand it to the casting directors of Stephen King’s “It,” which is Martell’s biggest credit to date. They found a generation of relatable stars such as Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard (of “Stranger Things” fame) and Jack Dylan Grazer, who are all working non-stop.
Also making a meal of a morsel is Chloë Sevigny as Paul’s mom. The actress probably has fewer than 20 lines, and still she brings depth and palpable regret to her scene.
The words “direct to digital,” or its VHS and DVD precursors, used to make me wince. It’s the format that brought us “Shark in Venice” starring Stephen Baldwin and “Slapshot 2: Breaking the Ice” starring Stephen Baldwin. But those dark days are long gone. Now the distribution cost-cuts and enhanced accessibility let us discover gems, such as “Wolfboy,” that would’ve otherwise gotten lost in the woods.
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