Wildcat, 2024, 2 ½ stars

Embedded narrative drift

Maya Hawke stars as Mary Flannery O’Connor. (Image is courtesy of Enzian / Florida Film Festival.)

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 23, 2024

Southern Gothic writer Mary Flannery O’Connor was a wildcat: one who drills for oil in areas not known for it, metaphorically, of course. Misunderstood by both publishers and her own family for her dark, unconventional stories, she persisted in exploring content not often considered suitable or enjoyable for mainstream audiences, until her death from lupus at age 39. The stories were especially unusual for a female author in the 1950s.

That wildcatter spirit dominates Ethan Hawke’s new drama. It inspired not just the title, but the structure and tone of the film, which recounts O’Connor’s early adulthood, including her career and health struggles. Hawke co-wrote it with Shelby Gaines, who is perhaps better known as a composer. It should come as no surprise then that Wildcat sometimes feels more like a symphony, drifting from one movement to another, sans a traditional narrative structure.

It’s also memorably poetic, as when O’Connor’s lifelong friend, the famous author “Cal” Robert Lowell, tells her he loves her but has “a lot of eggs to fry.” Her response: “You let me know when you’re done with breakfast.” Later, when questioned about her argumentative disposition, she tells him, “I try to turn the other cheek, but my tongue is always in it.”

But, like O’Connor, Wildcat is difficult, unruly and downright hard to understand. The aforementioned relationship with Lowell only became clear to this reviewer upon internet research. Not knowing much about O’Connor going into the movie, I didn’t know much more when leaving. The film might mean more to those familiar with the author’s short stories and novels, as the script repeatedly adopts an “embedded narrative” that blurs the line between O’Connor’s life and her characters’.

That confusion can be splendid at times, particularly in the hands of Maya Hawke (Ethan Hawke’s daughter), who delivers a knock-out performance as O’Connor, and Laura Linney, as O’Connor’s mother (and the mother character in O’Connor’s stories). (If the film were receiving better notices – reviews are mixed – Linney might be in line for an Oscar nomination for supporting actress.) But other actors (Philip Ettinger as Lowell, Rafael Casal as O.E. Parker (one of O’Connor’s most famous characters) and even Liam Neeson as the family’s priest) become victims of the film’s hodgepodge.

Most of the cogs in the Wildcat wheel function well, but, inexplicably, the wheel simply doesn’t turn as it should. Indeed, when it played the recent Florida Film Festival, everyone I asked was stumped to explain their indifference. Strangely, no one said they didn’t like it, almost afraid to express discontent. But the disappointment was there for them and me, fed by lack of focus (both in the script and the shallow-focus cinematography) and the ending, which seems too unimaginative and abrupt for such a visionary project.

“The truth doesn’t change according to your ability to stomach it,” O’Connor tells a man offended by her writing. I hope whatever truth you find in Wildcat – and there is a lot to be found – sits better in your gut than it did in mine.

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This review is part of my coverage of the 2024 Florida Film Festival. To find out when this movie is playing and buy tickets, go to FloridaFilmFestival.com. For more information about the event and an index of reviews of other festival films, go here. For more information on this movie, visit IMDB.