Magical quest for self-acceptance

You cannot hate a movie as goodhearted as this one. It is gentle with everyone. Sometimes nature is cruel. So it was in afflicting a sweet boy like Paul (Jaeden Martell of Knives Out and It), who's approaching his thirteenth birthday, with the abnormality called hypertrichosis. That word is not mentioned here, but thanks to Mark Garbarino the "prosthetics whiz" Martell has been provided with what Peter Debruge in his Variety review calls "a rather fetching face of fur." He also has furry hair all over his body. Unfriendly schoolmates call Paul "dog boy" or "fur ball," and he has no friends. Paul has a simple, working class father (Chris Messina), a garbage collector, who first takes him to a carnival and suggests he take off the head-warmer ski mask he usually wars and stand tall and be proud. It does not work. He is badly taunted and abused by classmates.

At home Denny, the dad, brings out a new idea: Paul can go to a boarding school for kids who are "different."

We know that's not what Paul wants because we've been hearing him saying over and over to himself "I'm a regular kid, I'm normal! I'm a regular kid, I'm normal!" He wants to be accepted among ordinary boys and girls. And he wants to know what happened to his mother. There are some things he's always wanted to ask her.

Paul tries on the school uniform, but runs away in it, having received a present from his mother with an address in Pennsylvania. He gets momentarily waylaid by the slick, untrustworthy carnival master called Mr. Silk (John Turturro) to whom he goes for directions - the first sign that this film has a fairytale lilt to it. Mr. Silk, of course proposes making Paul a freak show wolfboy and the fantasy is shown us.

Paul runs off, causing a disaster. Mr. Silk pursues him. Paul finds a sort-of-freak for a companion, a singer called Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore), whose mother knows her as "Kevin," and who is trans. (The writer Olivia Dufault is trans). Aristiana takes Paul to a wild bar where he is not noticed. They join up with the eye-patch-wearing Rose (Irish actress Eve Hewson), on the road, where Rose, it turns out, likes to hold up convenience stores, but has lately switched to gas stations (more lucrative). They seem largely to go for snack food. But Paul declares this to be "fun." He has begun to smile. That is the main thing. We look through the "rather fetching face of fur" for the smile. Along the way, the storybook quality of this road movie is underlined by the frequent very pretty chapter cards, which look like illustrations from a children's book like, Debruge explains, Dragon's Dilemma and The Pirate queen. This teen-friendly YA coming-of-age story is tinged with the magic of childhood.

The facades of the shops robbed by Rose - and Paul too now - are priceless examples or urban-primitive Americana; there is a side of giddy caricature to this movie as well as the YA feel-good empowerment, the kindness, and the fantasy-magic. This trip doesn't get Paul to his mother. But he is being tracked by a diligent policewoman (the road trip is accompanied by a police chase) who eventually finds him and reunites him with Denny, who takes him to Jen (Chlo Sevigny), his glum, contrite mom, who has a surprise for him upstairs and whom he forgives but will not agree to hug.

All this takes a little while to get started - until the magic starts; but once it does, it flies as light as a breeze. Jaeden Martell wears his prosthetic fur with confidence. His quiet, sometimes plaintive sweetness is the essential constant of the story. Like so many tales, this one ends when its lonely protagonist knows he, or she, has a friend.

The True Adventures of Wolfboy, 88 mins., debuted at Karlovy Vary after, Debruge says, a two-year search for a festival home; it also showed at Lublin-Warsaw (Splat!FilmFest Horror Film Festival). The director is Czech. It will be released on demand and digital by Vertical Entertainment Oct. 30, 2020.