“Wildlike” is one of the more beautiful films you’re apt to see, with stunning shots of the Alaskan wild from both the ground and air. In some ways it’s a travelogue of our northernmost state, photographed at the Denali and Wrangell-St. Alias national parks, the Matanuska Glacier, Juneau, Anchorage and Whittier, not to mention the amazing views of the stark coastline as you take the ferry into Juneau.
(Did you know that Juneau, the state capital, can only be reached by boat or air? I did not.)
But as lovely as the vistas are to gaze upon, “Wildlike” is a very human story. Written and directed by Frank Hall Green, it’s the tale of Mackenzie, an alienated 14-year-old girl from Seattle who’s sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska while her mother emerges from drug rehabilitation.
Mackenzie is played by Ella Purnell, who reminds me of a young Dakota Fanning, with her Bambi-sized eyes and waif-like bearing. She’s a young woman who’s had a tough short life, which has led her to be cut off from others – and it’s about to get tougher.
The uncle (Brian Geraghty) turns out to be an amiable fellow who wants Mackenzie to feel at home. But the unwavering way he stares at her clues us in that his soul has black spots. While on an outdoor excursion with uncle and his friend, she takes off.
Mackenzie has no plan of what to do or how to survive in the wilderness, so she starts following an older hiker she happens upon named Bart (Bruce Greenwood). He’s alone, a bit standoffish, and isn’t quite sure how to deal with this girl trailing him. She even follows him to his hotel, where she wanders around, grubbing food, ignoring calls and texts from her uncle and even imposing upon an impressionable young man (Nolan Gerard Funk) for a room to crash in.
But Bart heads out on the trail again, and lacking better options she goes along. Eventually they become traveling companions who slowly eke out information to each other about the tragedies of their past – his, remote but lingering; hers, immediate and hostile.
From a plot perspective there isn’t a whole lot going on. The real action takes place in the interior of the two main characters. Bart wants nothing to do with Mackenzie at first, and she initially views him as a mark from whom to obtain food and protection. In their body language and small bits of conversation, though, the actors brightly underline a growing bond.
The film ends on a deliberately ambivalent note. I liked the fact that Green doesn’t push or pull the audience into big emotional scenes or try to have the characters do things they otherwise might not have just to further the story. “Wildlike” has an observational, naturalistic approach to human anguish and hope.