WILDCAT – Review by Justina Walford

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I am a woman writer working on her first novel who feels at the whim of her characters, so this film might have been a dangerous adventure. However, we’re discovering Flannery O’Connor here, so I cannot deny myself the dark joy of commiserating with the pen-holder of Wise Blood. So, here goes my review of Wildcat.

Ethan Hawke has taken it upon himself to explore Flannery O’Connor cinematically. I understand the allure. O’Connor’s turn of phrase and rich Southern Gothic style begs to be on screen. Along with her stories, Flannery O’Connor was an iconic woman and a character in and of herself. Many novelists (Ethan Hawke being one himself) see pieces of ourselves in her life. And history definitely has pieces of her era in our era. The racial conflict and civil rights upheaval of the 50’s has a certain spark that we mirror in this very moment of time.

Every story about Flannery O’Connor is fascinating. There’s a documentary from 2019 that I’ve watched three times, so I was skeptical that a narrative film could meet my standard here. And I still believe that she is more worthy of a documentary (another one, even) than a dramatic account. If you know nothing about Flannery O’Connor, I want to bless you with a movie spoiler. O’Connor wrote through chronic illness, the same illness that took her father. Lupus. I’m blessing you with this spoiler because it will make the opening scenes even more heartbreaking. Seeing her skip in the first few minutes made my heart sink.

Sadly, as much as I anticipated diving into O’Connor’s mind, I found myself struggling a bit with the film’s portrayal of her. While Maya Hawke delivers a heart-grabbing performance as the young novelist and various story characters, I couldn’t shake the feeling that certain aspects of O’Connor’s life were overshadowed by conventional tropes of love and loss with a seasoning of Gen Z wisdom that didn’t quite exist back in the day, at least not with O’Connor whose racism has been discussed and debated heatedly of late. Her blunt portrayal of race was progressive in the 40’s and 50’s but she was not a product of the 2020’s. She was a product of the South, born nearly a century ago. And to deny the complexity of her empathy and ignorance is unfair to the history we now must live with. None of our heroes of the past can walk away unscathed when they are products of the oppression we still grapple with.

Also, I longed for more exploration of her struggle with her relationship with God and her divinely empathetic observations about humans at our worst and our arcs of redemption. This is likely why my favorite scene is with the priest (Liam Neeson), and we see her on the verge of madness, trying to console her loss of faith with her loss of words.

But where I am harsh, it is out of love. The film is shot beautifully and the actors were close to perfect. I believe Wildcat will do exactly what it is intended to do: show us a young woman who perseveres through illness, loss of religion, and writer’s block. As O’Connor would say herself, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” Maybe this is the point of the film. In giving O’Connor the wisdom of what we know now, we give her the arc she desperately tried to achieve in her writing, to transcend the reality of the time by diving deep into the belly of truth, ugly and dark truth.

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Justina Walford

Justina Walford is a film critic on a mission to spotlight the voices of visionary women behind the camera. Coming from a background in writing for stage and screen, Justina celebrates the diverse narratives and unique perspectives women bring to film. Her reviews not only critique cinematic techniques but also amplify the importance of representation in the film industry. Justina especially enjoys the edgier side of film in the rich and diverse landscape of art created by women. She is always on the hunt for trailblazers in horror and experimental work.