Most teenage boys would kill for a few whiskers, but not Paul. At 13, he already has a full face of hair, and his peers treat him like a freak for it. So, too, does Martin Krejčí’s “The True Adventures of Wolfboy,” although the movie argues that perhaps being a freak isn’t such a bad thing. You just have to learn to ignore what other people think and embrace your inner other.
That’s an evergreen theme among YA movies — where bullies serve as bad guys, but lack of self-acceptance is the real obstacle to be overcome — and a useful lesson in such sensitive times. But is “Wolfboy” unique enough to make an impact? Working from a screenplay by playwright Olivia Dufault, Krejcí conjures a vision of Middle America in which magic and myth seem to exist alongside his characters, amplifying the interior struggle of his young protagonist, played by “It” star Jaeden Martell, who appears beneath a rather fetching face of fur.
Hypertrichosis. That’s what doctors call Paul’s condition, even if the movie never names it, preferring to treat Paul’s hirsute situation as a kind of fairy tale affliction. Practically speaking, building a film around a character whose features are covered in a thick coat of hair is a big risk, to say the least, though makeup effects guru Mark Garbarino (a prosthetics whiz who typically works on much bigger projects, from sci-fi series to Marvel movies) creates a look that holds up on camera, and comes across behind a mask that’s both convincing and kinda cute — although that may have to do with the way Martell emotes, mostly with his eyes, behind the furry mask. If puppies are typically more adorable than full-grown dogs, then “Wolfboy” should be more appealing than Lon Chaney’s “The Wolfman,” and so it is with Garbarino’s design.
The movie opens at a traveling carnival, whose exaggerated atmosphere sets the tone for what follows: It is Paul’s birthday, and he’s self-conscious about appearing in public, hiding his face behind a knit ski mask. Paul has no friends, and the instant Percy (Nick Pulinski) and the kids from school spot him, they begin their taunting, calling him names and cracking jokes about his missing mom (implying that she must have been a real dog, and so on). His dad, a blue-collar guy (Chris Messina) who collects trash for a living, implores Paul to rise above the insults, to embrace “dignity” instead of anger, but the truth is, Paul isn’t looking for sympathy; he wants to belong.
He also wants to know why his mom left, suspecting she may be able to explain his condition. So, when he receives a strange box containing a map mysteriously labeled, “When you’re ready, there is an explanation,” Paul runs away in search of answers. Director Krejcí, who is Czech, and screenwriter Dufault, who is trans, divide the film into chapters, with title cards lavishly illustrated in the style of classic children’s books, à la “Dragon’s Dilemma” and “The Pirate Queen.” These dividers help to orient audiences according to the story’s fantastical view of events. Along the way, Paul encounters those who would exploit him — such as circus master Mr. Silk (John Turturro), who suggests a tall, devilish version of “Pinocchio’s” menacing Stromboli — and unlikely allies among other outcasts, including “mermaid” Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore, with her aquamarine mane) and “pirate” Rose (Eve Hewson, sporting an eye patch and spun-sugar pink hair).
Although modeled on a standard road-trip movie, Wolfboy’s journey is presented here as nothing short of an epic quest, in which each obstacle faced takes on the significance of a grand adventure. The movie spent nearly two years in post, turned down by multiple festivals before finally making its debut at Karlovy Vary (in the Czech Republic), and one can imagine other cuts attempting any number of different approaches to the material — although Krejčí’s gift for creating texture and tone is undeniable. (Here, he is aided enormously by documentary helmer Andrew Droz Palermo’s luminous cinematography, and the mix between nostalgic tunes and Nick Urata’s rich orchestral score.)
If anything, the version screened seems a little too basic — charming in its way, but stripped of the kind of personality that might have set it apart. Aside from an unexpected f-word, shouted by Paul in a moment of extreme frustration, and a few distinctly adult details (like the montage in which Rose leads them on a series of convenience-store robberies), “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is mild enough to be a children’s movie. And yet, despite Paul and Aristiana’s young age, it feels as if the story was intended to be edgier than it is.
But maybe this is how “Wolfboy” ought to have been all along: a throwback movie, equal parts Stephen King and “Stranger Things,” featuring an actor from “It,” bearing a learn-to-love-thyself message adults know all too well, but which could save (or at least ameliorate) a few young people’s lives. Chloë Sevigny appears in the final stretch, so you can guess who she plays. Krejcí uses her unconventional looks as no movie has before, though it’s the actress’s sensitivity that makes these scenes resonate.
Until this point, nearly everyone has been overacting to match the film’s larger-than-life vibe (Turturro, while terrific, would have been more impactful fuming in the rearview mirror rather than pursuing Paul cross-country), whereas Sevigny has a calming effect. But it’s Giannamore who leaves the strongest impression as Aristiana. The actress, who has been openly transgender since age 11, beautifully embodies a “mermaid” who is confident of her female identity, despite the cruelties of biology and the criticism of her parents and peers, which in turn teaches Paul to think about his own condition differently. Her experience is presented as a metaphor for Wolfboy’s, when in fact, the film was cleverly designed the other way around. Rather than making a film about a self-hating trans girl, Krejčí and company present her as the supporting character who allows a fellow outsider to accept himself.